One California UNITE HERE Corporate Campaign Heats Up; Another Cools Off

Those planning a trip to San Francisco during what remains of this summer might want to reconsider their destination. That’s because when they get there, they may find few hotels able to accommodate them, thanks to an aggressive union campaign. And San Francisco isn’t the only major U.S. city affected. The union is UNITE HERE, formed two years ago through a merger of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Workers, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees. UNITE HERE General President Bruce Raynor admits his campaign, dubbed “Hotel Workers Rising,” is part of a centrally-directed strategy to gain membership at a time when employers ostensibly are trying to thwart organizing. “Local autonomy has to give way to centralized, national leadership when you’re going up against a centralized national corporation,” he said.  


The campaign is making itself felt. Four hotels – the Congress Plaza Hotel in Chicago and the Crowne Plaza LaGuardia, the Hampton New York (JFK) and the Holiday Inn (JFK) in New York City – as of the start of July were experiencing a strike or a lockout, notes Labor Watch, a monthly publication of the Washington, D.C.-based Capital Research Center. UNITE HERE also is boycotting more than a dozen hotels in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Hartford and other cities. It is in San Francisco, however, where the union is concentrating most of its firepower. Fully 15 hotels in that city are under boycott, and 14 of those are under strike watch as well. They include the Crowne Plaza, the Fairmont, the Grand Hyatt, the Hilton, Mark Hopkins Intercontinental and the Holiday Inn Civic Center. 


The 450,000-member union launched its San Francisco campaign back in February at a rally featuring ex-North Carolina Democratic Senator and 2004 vice presidential candidate John Edwards and actor Danny Glover. On April 26 UNITE HERE released a paper, “Creating Luxury, Enduring Pain,” claiming that hotel work endangers the safety of housekeeping staff. The study analyzed on-the-job injury records during the 1999-2005 period among nearly 90 Hilton, Starwood, Hyatt, Marriott and Intercontinental hotels across the country; these hotels employed a combined roughly 40,000 workers. The authors concluded that hotel housekeepers had a 10.4 percent average annual injury rate (i.e., 10.4 injuries per 100 workers), well above the 5.6 percent rate for non-housekeepers, citing as reasons management’s switch to heavier mattresses, triple sheeting, and more pillows. Joseph McInerney, president of the American Hotel & Lodging Association, responded that his industry’s injury rates are lower than those in comparable service industries, and that hotels have been hiring ergonomic experts to lower the risk of injuries. He presented Bureau of Labor Statistics data showing that the annual rate of injuries to hotel workers is only 5.9 percent, lower than the rates for hospitals (8.3 percent), wineries (8.1 percent), warehouse clubs (7.4 percent), department stores (7.0 percent) and grocery stores (6.5 percent).  


As is the case with most corporate campaigns, UNITE HERE’s primary aim is not to air specific worker grievances, but to pressure businesses into abandoning allegedly offensive practices, lest they lose customers. In Hartford, union organizers are demanding hotel owners adhere to a city living-wage ordinance provision requiring employers who receive tax breaks to sign a “labor peace agreement.” UNITE HERE also has been persuading organizations to hold their conventions only at hotels that meet with union approval. The union in particular has been aggressive about demanding the “card check” as a procedure to win worker representation as opposed to the standard, and less coercive, secret-ballot election.           


If UNITE HERE’s hotel campaign appears to be picking up steam, another campaign – focused entirely on Northern California – has been stopped in its tracks. On July 2, a jury in Placer County (near Lake Tahoe) ordered the union to pay nearly $17.3 million in civil damages to Sutter Health, a Sacramento-based nonprofit network of doctors and hospitals. The union, the jurors believed, acted with fraud, malice or oppression in mailing defamatory postcards to women of childbearing age in many Northern California communities where the health-care provider operates. Scores of witnesses testified in the three-week trial.

The direct mailings alleged Sutter Health used linens that had been inadequately cleaned by an outside laundry service used by scores of hospitals in the region. By no small coincidence, the union was in a dispute with the laundry service at the time of the mailings. In response, Sutter Health and affiliated hospitals filed suit last year. Sutter Board Chairman Michael Roosevelt is pleased with the verdict. “We truly hope this decision encourages labor unions like UNITE HERE to think twice before using shameful scare tactics that ultimately hurt patients in an attempt to advance a political agenda,” he said, adding the health consortium plans to invest its jury award into improvement of hospital services. The union, meanwhile, plans to appeal. (Labor Watch, 7/06; PR Newswire, 7/21/06).