UNITE HERE, Nikil Saval picket Grand Hyatt, get arrested

Yesterday, July 23, saw coordinated protests by workers in hotel workers union UNITE HERE (AFL-CIO) in fifteen cities across the United States and Canada. In a few cities–Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco–workers were fighting for the retention of health care benefits in contract negotiations that have been going on for nearly a year, while in others, where contracts were set to expire, it was a harbinger of things to come if hotels refused to negotiate in good faith.

I was one of 152 people arrested outside the Grand Hyatt in San Francisco, where in a highly coordinated action a mix of community members and workers from Local 2 of UNITE HERE had sat down and blocked a major street leading past the hotel to Union Square, the center of the city’s shopping district. I worked as a volunteer for Local 2 last fall, where I participated in a similar event prior to the expiration of contracts. Like that protest–where we blocked a hotel lobby–this one was fairly nonconfrontational. In spite of the powerful forces for gentrification, thanks principally in recent years to the cycles of the dot-com boom (it was halted in the late ’90s, but it never really ended), San Francisco retains a sense that it is still a labor town. As such members of the city council (here called the Board of Supervisors, since San Francisco is both a city and a county) joined the march early, while candidates for November’s elections locked arms with workers for the civil disobedience. City Hall is used to these actions and knows it’s good politics to join them. The police, too, are used to it, and they behave professionally and courteously. But they have a union too and no doubt keep in mind the budget troubles savaging police forces in municipalities all over the Bay–like in Oakland, where sixty police officers were just laid-off.

Nonetheless, San Francisco’s biggest industry is tourism, and protests like this can cause millions of lost revenue to a corporation like Hyatt, also accustomed to if not exactly happy with actions like this. Moreover, the presence of hundreds of non-workers–clergy, LGBT activists, community organizers–willing to march and get arrested for union negotiations suggests the emergence of what Bill Fletcher, Jr. and Fernando Gaspin call (in their excellent book, Solidarity Divided) “social justice unionism”: union activity that defines itself as community and justice-oriented, rather than merely serving the interests of its members. After about an hour of sitting on the street in orderly rows and columns (suggesting the union’s “rank-and-file” membership), during which union leadership discussed the impending arrest with the police, officers came with plastic handcuffs to take us one by one. We sang old labor songs while being transported by public bus to the nearest police station, where we were cited and released. An older organizer sitting next to me on the bus, who had gotten his start working alongside César Chávez in the ’70s, mentioned that he had done this over twenty times. But he pointed to another community member who must have been in his seventies or eighties and who probably have tallied a higher count–during the protest, he could barely sit down or stand up on his own.

There’s also a larger target here. The owner of the Hyatt Corporation is Penny Pritzker, a billionaire scion of Chicago who was the finance chair for the Obama campaign; Hyatt remains solidly behind Obama. Unions were also solidly behind Obama–the Service Employees International Union alone spent $85 million campaigning for him–and as usual the result of their efforts has been absolutely nil, unless you count a handful of mealy-mouthed banalities, the sort that have been the President’s stock-in-trade. The Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier for unions to organize, was something Obama supported in his campaign and furtively abandoned in office. (The act is currently stalled in Congress.) In a recent push for a free trade pact with Colombia and Peru, the former community organizer recently said, “For a long time, we were trapped in a false political debate in this country, where business was on one side and labor was on the other. What we now have an opportunity to do is to refocus our attention where we’re all in it together.” Among the thousands marching yesterday, I can’t imagine a single person who would have subscribed to that zesty bit of characteristic nonsense; the two sides couldn’t have been clearer. Which raises an old question: which side is Obama on? –NS

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