The following article originally appeared in Proletarian Revolution No. 74, Spring 2005.
At a time when a big labor victory is sorely needed by the working class, the reformist labor leaders have refused to seize a particularly good opportunity – the expiration of union contracts affecting hotel workers, members of UNITE HERE, in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.
The capitalist offensive against the working class, over a quarter of a century old in the U.S., continues to accelerate. Wages and benefits are falling, and real unemployment remains rampant. The proposed slash in Social Security is the latest and most brazen attack on the social wage in this country. Union membership has fallen to only 7.9 percent of workers in the private sector (the lowest proportion since 1901), while the Bush Administration and state governments are mounting a frontal assault on public employee unionization.
In some respects, workers in the hotel sector of the economy seem to have fared better. UNITE HERE has made significant organizing gains in recent years, including the recruitment of 30,000 members in Las Vegas in the ’90’s. In San Francisco, the union has been able to increase its sizeable membership 15 percent since 1996.
But having a union contract has hardly been a guarantee of good times. Hotel workers have been subjected to speed-up and remain a low-wage sector of the work force. In a city like San Francisco with a high cost of living, the $9 to $15 an hour that workers earn leave them in a constant struggle to sustain themselves and their families.
And so the hotel struggle that commenced this past fall was a real test of the union’s capacity to defend its membership. While it is still ongoing, it is clear that misleadership has already led to major setbacks and disunity. A victory will certainly require far more than what labor bureaucrats have been willing to offer.
The hotel bosses wanted to impose severe cuts on their workforce. A focus for this offensive was the expiring contracts this past year in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. The bosses were looking in particular to make slashes in healthcare benefits, including charging workers a $275 co-payment for medical benefits. This idea naturally went against the needs of the workforce, hard-pressed and drawn largely from the ranks of oppressed people, particularly Asian and Latino immigrants.
Workers were certainly hostile to management, and the bosses also bumped up against the particular bargaining strategy of the UNITE HERE leadership. The union was demanding two-year contracts in the three cities, so that their next contracts would expire at the same time as contracts in other areas like New York and Chicago. They had argued to the ranks that this demand was strategic, and workers in the three cities were led to expect a joint strike in 2004 to win that common expiration date. The talking point was to use this gain as a building block for an even more powerful national strike two years from now.
An important aspect of the offensive on unions has been to roll back various contractual means by which unions exerted bargaining leverage and extracted concessions in the past. While the UNITE HERE leadership did not pose it right now, the common expiration date would have also opened up the possibility of going for a master contract in the hotel industry, along the lines that powerful unions like the Teamsters had accomplished in the past. In any case, a strike in several cities at once would threaten the profits of the industry far more heavily than isolated strikes alone.
The demand for a common expiration date was vehemently opposed by large chains like Hyatt, Hilton and Marriott – the hotels that would be the most affected by facing the union over a swath of major centers. Organized through the San Francisco Multi-Employer Group (SFMEG) and similar bodies in the other cities, the hotel bosses refused to give an inch on the matter.
So by the end of the summer it appeared that a dramatic struggle was shaping up. Bargaining in San Francisco and Washington, where contracts expired in September, was going nowhere, and the contract in Los Angeles had already expired. The ranks were ready for a scrap. They had voted for strike authorization by overwhelming numbers in all three cities.
A strike did occur at the beginning of October – but only in San Francisco, and only with 4000 hotel workers from four hotels. Thus the workers’ expectations of a solid strike in three cities were dashed from the beginning. On top of this, the union ordered the ranks in San Francisco back to work after two weeks. The fact is that this union leadership, considered one of the more “progressive” unions in the country, didn’t even do the basics of calling out all its members who were ready to strike.
Revolutionaries have a totally different idea of what a strike should look like. Mobilizing the full power of the ranks would have meant calling out the workers in all three cities and building picket lines that scabs couldn’t cross; it would have also meant a fight in the labor movement to turn the hotel workers’ fight into a cause of the whole working class. In this way decent contracts could not only have been achieved for one sector, but a huge push would have been made in getting the whole of labor off its knees and fighting again.
Given the nature of the union heads, such a full scale mobilization – with solid picketlines and citywide campaigns – certainly would have required at minimum that fighters within the union build an effective opposition, raising these demands and raising the spirit of fellow workers to see what is really possible. In our view such a fight would have shown the total inadequacy of all stripes of reformist, pro-capitalist leadership – and therefore the necessity for revolutionary leadership.
Left to their own devices, even the “progressive” union leaders of UNITE HERE never dare to go beyond controlled strikes and orchestrated demonstrations. But why they didn’t do the kind of broader strike that they claimed to favor, even in their own limited style, is still a mystery. Clearly the California supermarket strike had already demonstrated the limits of a selective strike. (See our article in PR 70.) Before the strike, one union organizer had stated: “we don’t want the same thing to happen to us that grocery workers faced in L.A.” But in important ways that was exactly what happened! An emboldened management ran a hard line, and the result was a strung-out, atomized struggle with varied results and prospects.
In San Francisco, where a partial strike at least had occurred, the SFMEG responded by imposing a lockout of workers at all of its 14 hotels and promptly brought in scabs. In pressing their attack, the bosses showed a unity of class purpose that trumped their competitive urges. The union ranks showed spirit at the picket lines around the hotels and in demonstrations. But workers surely had been given the message that their strike was to be a limited one, with minimal strike benefits and with minimal support from the so-called labor movement. (The union had also called for a boycott of the hotels, itself normally a feeble method of struggle.)
Nonetheless, the strike/lockout did make a dent in business, with cancelled reservations and complaints of poor service, and it created a political noise in the city. Democratic Mayor Gavin Newsom felt obliged to wade into the struggle. He pleaded with hotel management to end the lockout; when rebuffed, he kept city business out of the hotels and took the more unusual step of removing police from patrolling the picket lines. But Newsom did not do so out of “pro-worker” or “pro-strike” sentiments. He came to office as a well-known toady of the city’s moneyed interests and never ceased steering businesses from outside the city to the hotels through the Convention Bureau. He was interested only in tamping down the fight, getting the city back to normal and scoring some cheap political points with a working class that was rightly suspicious of him. The union officials assisted, virtually proclaiming him a hero of the struggle. Union bureaucrats are always eager to tout capitalist politicians, particularly Democrats, as deserving the ranks’ support – as an alternative to mass struggle. Newsom gave them just enough crumbs to make the praise appear plausible.
While Newsom’s actions were an irritant, business conditions were more troublesome; the effect of a strike on occupancy during the upcoming holiday season, traditionally a busy time for hotels, was a particular concern. So management wanted to ease off temporarily. The union leaders cooperated, failing to use an obvious opening to hit the hotels where it would hurt. A two-month “cooling off” period was declared in late November. During that period, UNITE HERE leaders signaled their willingness to throw out the demand for a two-year contract in return for a few sops with a three- or four-year pact. This capitulation only convinced management to press harder, so they offered a new proposal that also meant attacks on wages and healthcare.
The union leaders were left with nothing to sell to the ranks. So the cooling off period came and went without an agreement and with management upping its threats. Local 2 President Mike Casey announced that the union was not planning to resume the strike. As we go to press, a boycott of the big-chain hotels has been revived and only a low-level resistance is being implemented.
In the meantime, Los Angeles workers had to plod on with an expired contract and a management intent on grabbing serious concessions. In January, management declared an impasse in bargaining and began to impose unilateral cuts in wages and benefits. The move was so provocative that even the NLRB declared it illegal. But management still has no intent to throw the union any bones, and has been making noises about a lockout. The union leaders have been forced into a position, like in San Francisco, of trying to cook up some resistance to the bosses’ unrelenting stance. They started a boycott, engineered rallies, and are talking about preparing for a lockout or even (heaven forbid!) a strike. It should be noted that the two California locals, rather than coordinating strike activity, have adopted opposite approaches: San Francisco struck and now talks of not striking; L.A. refused to go out in October but now offers weak strike talk.
Otherwise, UNITE HERE’s main “achievement” with the L.A. hotels has been to negotiate a two-year pact with independent and smaller hotel chains. But a common expiration date in this case doesn’t have quite the impact as with the bigger chains and can’t be expected to be a trendsetter. Worse, in order to get it the union agreed to microscopic wage increases and to what amounts to healthcare cuts (by subsidizing rising health care costs from a trust fund reserve).
In Washington, events played out somewhat differently. With bargaining going nowhere through the end of last year, the union leaders began making threats of a strike during the second coronation of George W. Bush. But instead of taking action at that opportune moment, the union capitulated on the two-year contract demand. A deal with moderate wage increases and maintenance of the healthcare package was hammered out and overwhelmingly approved by a rank and file that must have been discouraged and wary because of the disjointed nature of the struggle.
At the moment, this is where things stand in the hotel workers’ struggle. But a bit more has been going on “at the top,” which bears on the situation. When we discussed the labor scene in PR 73 (see “Labor Confronts Wal-Mart”) we noted that UNITE HERE had joined in the “New Unity Partnership” (NUP), a bureaucratic bloc that was raising some sharp criticisms of the organizing efforts of the AFL-CIO. In addition to UNITE HERE led by John Wilhelm and Bruce Raynor, the NUP included President Andrew Stern of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), as well as the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) and the Carpenters Union. The NUP proposed that a greater premium be put on organizing, and that financial and organizational structures be re-aligned within the AFL-CIO. They favored the consolidation of unions along established industrial lines and larger merged unions.
We noted that while being more aggressive in union organizing than the bulk of the union bureaucracy, the NUP approach differed little in fundamentals. As we stated:
The essential point is that the NUP leaders are unwilling to pursue a level of militancy and mobilization of the ranks that is even significantly distinguished from the daily sellouts of the labor bureaucracy at large. No wonder they have conveniently based their platform on the question of organizing narrowly posed, as if defending current members against the bosses’ attacks and organizing new workers are not organically connected. Yet without a change in strategy, plans to restructure and devote more funds to union organizing will by themselves bear little fruit in achieving even their own limited goals.
The NUP is now history, having dissolved in early January. While it is not clear what the exact internal dynamics were, NUP was an odd collection of union heads from the start. Within the spectrum of “respectable” capitalistic politics, the SEIU and UNITE HERE leaders are considered progressive, while the LIUNA and Carpenter leaders are of a more conservative bent. The fact that they organize a base of poorly paid workers, drawn largely from the ranks of oppressed minorities, is no doubt part of what has forced UNITE HERE and SEIU to adopt more progressive positions. (And on important issues like immigrant rights, they certainly have registered more favorably than the old craft unions generally do.) But in essence the SEIU and UNITE HERE leaders represent a wing of the bureaucracy that places a premium on organizational technique and cleverness – conceived, initiated and enforced by smart and trained people on the top. And that was what the bloc with LIUNA and the Carpenters was about – not a fundamental change in the conduct of struggle but the accretion of more funds and resources at the top.
In this regard, one factor in the breakup was that SEIU’s Stern had made threats to bolt from the AFL-CIO – a move that was apparently considered too disruptive and was not well received by other NUP leaders. A big factor was that the Teamsters Union, a significant force in labor, presented a proposal to the AFL-CIO Executive Council in December similar to what NUP had stood for: it would reward individual unions’ organizing efforts with financial rebates and urged voluntary mergers of unions. The proposal was viewed favorably by NUP leaders, including Stern. When the proposal was voted on at a more recent meeting of the AFL-CIO leaders, it was defeated but had picked up added support from the United Auto Workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers.
The end of NUP as such confirms our analysis of the lack of difference over fundamentals between it and other sections of the labor bureaucracy. The conduct of the UNITE HERE leadership in the hotel struggle also shows that a big union merger in itself hardly substitutes for a fighting strategy and a real show of class power. In fact, according to all reports the crisis facing hotel workers and the actual ongoing struggle wasn’t even on the NUP agenda!
Altogether, the entire labor bureaucracy, which derives its power from being brokers of labor power, is far more frightened of a militant mobilization of the rank and file that could get out of hand than of the threats and attacks of the bosses themselves. And that is why there is so much more that keeps them together than divides them at this point.
We would expect that the protracted and unsuccessful lockout period, on top of the lack of a forthright strike preparation by union leaders, had a chilling effect on the ranks’ spirit. On the other hand, the bosses themselves are allowing the bureaucrats so little maneuvering room that the necessity for some sort of a fight could still be building.
In any case, many workers would agree that the time for a real strategy of struggle is overdue. In this situation, accepting givebacks, particularly in health care, must be rejected. Hefty wage increases and maintenance of existing health benefits are fighting demands, and the demand for a two-year contract should be revived. Preparation for, at minimum, a joint strike of L.A. and San Francisco workers, is on the order of the day. Workers who see the need for a drastic change in the conduct of the strike, should fight for such policies as well as the active support of the entire spectrum of organized labor. This means not only financial aid but mass, militant picket lines to keep scabs out.
The possibilities for a militant and successful struggle in the hotel industry exist. Despite the massive problems with the way the strike/lockout was being led in the fall, the hotel bosses did reveal vulnerabilities. A victory would be a real shot in the arm for unionized workers and the working class in general. Given the painfully long lull in the labor “movement,” it is inevitable that workers will reach the boiling point. One cannot predict whether a real fightback can take place in the California labor scene right now or whether an eruption will first occur elsewhere. Such matters are beyond the control of small groups.
However, what we as revolutionaries must do is to help build a new leadership that can play a larger role in the future in advancing such struggles when they do occur. The working class desperately needs a leadership that believes in the power of our own class and is not afraid to mobilize workers for our class’s own interests. An authentic revolutionary party will do just that; it will be dedicated to overthrowing capitalism and creating a new epoch of prosperity and justice.