When the novel coronavirus crisis hit, hotel workers everywhere were among the first to feel the massive job losses that are now worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s. In city after city, the women and men who clean rooms, make beds and cook food found themselves wondering if they and their unions would survive. In April 2020, I interviewed Anand Singh, President of UNITE HERE Local 2 in San Francisco, about that question. Singh's vision of the COVID crisis as a trial by fire, from which the labor movement can emerge stronger, is a welcome antidote to feeling powerless in the face of the virus.
An important force in San Francisco, UNITE HERE Local 2 has successfully organized almost all the city's Class A hotels, through two decades of turbulent strikes and lockouts. Its diverse membership of African American, white, Latino and Asian-American workers has made noisy drum-banging picket lines a vital part of the city's working-class culture. In 2018, UNITE HERE mounted a nationwide strike against the giant Marriott Corporation. Local 2 stayed out longest-- 61 days--and achieved a contract setting a new standard for the city of San Francisco.
The strike won San Francisco hotel workers a dollar and a half wage increase each year for four years, with the employer continuing to pay for healthcare costs. Housekeepers won reductions in the number of rooms cleaned each day. The contract controls the introduction of technology in the workplace, and provides greater protection from sexual harassment and immigration-based discrimination. The strike stopped Marriott from contracting out room service and food service, and in San Francisco, laid-off workers can go into a pool for rehire at other hotels.
The strike stopped Marriott from contracting out room service and food service, and in San Francisco, laid-off workers can go into a pool for rehire at other hotels.
Striking Local 32 members, pictured here, remind us of the common struggles shared by workers, even in the time of COVID.
We were tracking the news, seeing the events unfold in China late last year. A large portion of our membership emigrated from China, and they travel back and forth, so the virus was a topic of much discussion. It all came to a head in late January, when many of our members took their vacation and traveled back to China for the Lunar New Year celebrations.
Several members went to Wuhan. When one went back to work at the Marriott, there was an outcry -that she'd been allowed to work among everyone when she had just been there. I was poring over CDC guidelines on testing and quarantine, and Marriott ended up asking the worker to go home. The hotel paid her for 14 days, to shelter in place. I don't believe she was ever tested, and once the 14 days were up, she came back to work.
As the crisis was worsening, we started to talk with our members about CDC guidelines and testing, which wasn't available at that point. We tried to impress early on that this is not specific to Chinese workers or Chinese people. This is a global crisis. Our members got it. Many folks in San Francisco tried to get in front of that xenophobia and the backlash against the Chinese community. I'm sure it exists here in the Bay Area, but we have experience talking about it here, and that made a difference.
Things really started to hit in February, with cancellations of large events. Once "shelter-in-place" went into effect, it upended everything. Every day we got notices from hotels about closures and layoffs.
As business dropped off, hotels were not taking new bookings. Occupancy fell to 20 percent, and then into single digits. Then they were closing entirely.
Food and beverage workers were the first to go. Then housekeeping. Lobbies and public areas went down to maybe a doorman to manage traffic at the doors. The Hilton Union Square has 1900 rooms and 900 to 1000 workers. They started the year at ninety to a hundred percent occupancy, and essentially everybody was fully employed. After shelter in place, it collapsed to about 30 workers. They ended up closing their doors altogether.
The big hotels had never had to close their doors. They don't even have a mechanism to lock them, so they had to board them up. The Fairmont Hotel had stayed open during the 1906 San Francisco fire and earthquake. Now they've closed the doors for the first time.
DB: What was the impact on hotel workers and the union?
It was a real crisis for our members, especially the uncertainty around health care. During the pandemic, we secured members' health care benefits through our trust fund. Without true health care reform in our country and a single-payer system, we're at the mercy of insurance companies and the medical-industrial complex, so our rank-and-file leadership has made funding benefits a priority, and we had substantial reserves.
We demanded that the hotel industry step up and make contributions themselves to take care of their employees. We were met with silence; no commitment to continue people's benefits. So we made a decision to draw down some of those reserves until the end of July, and everybody's benefits are extended through then.
They didn't offer sick pay or continued wages either. They simply gave people layoff notices and said see you later. Some hotels wanted workers to use their accrued time and cash out their vacation, but that's workers' money. If they're forced to use it now, they will have no other means to survive. Marriott Corporation offered pay to their non-union employees, and some members asked me, 'What about us?"
We're trying to figure out how to be effective in this moment. It's going to require us to devise a campaign and engage in tactics we normally don't use. One of the problems is that we don't have the ability to congregate.
We are still finding our way. We started with large conference calls and taped video messages to our larger membership on YouTube. That was insufficient because there was no real interaction. Then we began conducting Zoom meetings in small groups with our committee leaders, hotel by hotel. Some of our members have taped short videos, and we've created what we call a digital delegation to members of Congress. They can hear workers' voices as they consider stimulus packages and corporate bailouts. We've had some measure of success, although not nearly enough to make sure workers have a voice.
DB: What are the demands you're making on the industry?
Most important, we need continuation of health care. I wish we lived in a country where healthcare was a right for every person, but that's not the case. As long as we're within this system, employers have a responsibility.
Number two, when business starts to come back and the hotels reopen, we're concerned about the health and safety of our members. They must get proper supplies and personal protective equipment and training to use it, as well as cleaning in line with CDC and Department of Public Health recommendations.
While we're still not at full employment, work should be offered on a voluntary basis by seniority. Some members may choose not to work and would rather be on unemployment. They might fear for their own safety or somebody else in their home, or maybe they're part of a vulnerable community.
When things do return to as normal as they can be, our members' livelihood should also return to normal. During the 9/11 and 2008 crises, the employers said we all had to share the pain. But when things returned to normal, they kept staffing levels where they were during the crisis. They capitalized on crisis, like war profiteers. Now they're pandemic profiteers. We want an assurance that when things return to normal our members share in those gains.
In the models we see coming out of Europe right now, the government essentially takes over certain employers for a period of time. That leads to stability. When the crisis abates, the workers are still on the payroll. They're secure and can be plugged back in and start working again.
But that's not good enough for U.S. companies. They are lobbying for corporate bailouts with no strings attached. They want to be able to pay their lenders and enrich themselves. Over the last several years, all they've cared about is returning dividends to their shareholders and stock buybacks to inflate the worth of their companies. Survival of the companies is important. We understand that. But they have no regard for their employees. They see them as disposable.
Undocumented workers especially have very little to fall back on. Employers have a real responsibility to step up for them, whether or not they want to acknowledge who's been doing the work, day in and day out.
DB: The union also includes workers in the airline kitchens. Aren't they considered essential workers?
Airline catering is the largest segment of our membership that continues working. Hundreds of our members are still in airline kitchens preparing food. They are clearly essential workers and at risk every day of contracting the virus and passing it on to co-workers. Yet most don't have health care to cover their family members.
Several tested positive for COVID-19. One worker went on a ventilator, in an induced coma. When she came out of the coma, she discovered that her father, who lived at home with her, had also contracted COVID-19 and had passed away.
We say that essential workers are heroes. Applauding their efforts is just lip service when you don't provide them with what they need. Health care would cost just a fraction of the bailout money companies are receiving from the government. Unfortunately, the agenda has been hijacked by corporations looking to enrich themselves. It's all a cash grab.
American Airlines, the kitchens' biggest client, was one of the companies with its hand out. They got money, but I haven't heard they passed any on to the kitchens. I don't believe subcontractors got any of it. We constantly get shuffled around in the shell game of "it's not our responsibility." Workers are caught in the crossfire.
DB: Some Local Two members are now working in hotels that are being used to house people who were living on the streets. What are they saying about that?
About two weeks prior to the stay-at-home order, the city told us they were planning a large-scale quarantine operation, using hotels to shelter individuals who couldn't otherwise be isolated. The first question folks had was, "Am I going to be forced to work?" They have the right to say no without being disadvantaged or their unemployment benefits cut off. There are folks who opted not to work in that setting, but hundreds of our members are ready and willing. So far, we haven't had to go beyond those who normally work in each hotel to staff them.
Over the phone we worked out an agreement for our members to make sure that anybody in an environment with COVID-positive patients would be protected in every way possible. We have a number of hotels now set up as quarantine facilities, and that agreement ensures our members get all their PPE and supplies.
In the quarantine hotels, three meals are provided a day, so you have cooks and dishwashers. A room server delivers those meals but they don't actually talk to patients. They leave the meal at the door and knock. Workers clean public spaces, over and over, using enhanced cleaning measures. Before our members actually enter any rooms, they have to be sanitized by Department of Public Health special crews.
I asked one member, a bellman, how he felt. He said, "Look, when I get to the hotel everything is fine. They give us what we need, the masks, the gloves. We get trained by nurses. But I'm scared every day riding the bus to my job. I don't know if I'm going to get the virus and take it back home to my wife and my kids. That's what scares me." That really got to me. There's so much beyond what we can control in an agreement.
In the first few days of shelter-at-home, we called our entire membership, over 12,000 members, to see how they're doing. We asked if they or somebody they were living with had contracted the virus. About 30 people said yes, and we've been following up since. A lot of folks have recovered, but one member died. He worked at the ballpark, and his wife was also on a respirator.
Certainly there are hundreds more that have likely contracted the virus, whether they're symptomatic or not. We still don't have adequate testing. But we've been demanding on-site testing at quarantine hotels, and it's now available there.
DB: What do you expect when shelter-in-place ends?
There's going to be a return to normalcy for a lot of the world, but not for our members. Tourism has been hit hard and that's going to continue for some time. When business does return, workers must be able to come back to their jobs. The companies will make a case that there's no money. Our response is that they've done quite well over the last ten years and are not destitute. They have adequate means to provide health care to workers, to make sure they are safe and secure.
The crisis has had a real financial impact on the union. Over 90% of our members are laid off and aren't required to pay their union dues. We're working with our staff on how to put people on workshare for a while. We told our top rank-and-file leaders that we're strapped, and we expect them to step up.
To a person, our staff and leaders, in their bones, love and believe in this organization. They're not going to allow it to stumble or perish. Everybody's committed to making sure we get through this.
I was reading a book on the history of HERE published years ago, called Union House Union Bar. There's a picture in it from shortly after the 1906 earthquake and fire of the temporary union office. It's a tent at the corner of 7th and Mission Street. The world has collapsed, everything has burned to the ground, and yet members didn't let their union disappear. They erected a tent and kept the union running. Ten years later, in 1916, those same members ran a general strike for the 8-hour workday.
We're resilient. It's baked into our DNA. This moment is a challenge certainly, but I'm confident in our ability to weather this storm and come out stronger.
We're not in control of events - we're dealing with a virus that is indiscriminate and can strike anyone at any time. But there are things we can control. We can control the fact that we will not lie down and accept peanuts from a company like the Marriott Corporation, because that's what they've offered us. We're going to be a fighting union coming out of this. We're going to make demands of this industry like we never have before.
Our union has to speak out, not just for members of Local 2, but for all hotel workers in the city, union and non-union. Nobody else is going to shoulder that burden. It's challenging to do it while we're sheltered. Once that order is lifted, it'll make things slightly easier, but we've got a long road ahead of us.
Between reopening and our contract expiration in 2022, it's going to be a period of protracted struggle. We're going to have to fight day in and day out on the shop floor to get back what we had in years past. Workers everywhere will have to fight to get back what we're losing. It can be a great opportunity if we come together. Working people will be spoiling for the chance to fight back.
The pandemic profiteers will overreach as they always do. That's a moment for us. The power of working people in this country could grow in a way we haven't seen in decades, if we seize it and organize and come together.