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In a Covid-19 World, Can Hotel Workers Keep Their Gains?

Photo caption: Anand Singh (center) in the middle of Minneapolis’ Fourth Street, during coordinated national demonstrations against Marriott in 2018. Credit: David Bacon

Anand Singh is president of UNITE HERE Local 2, which has successfully organized almost all of San Francisco’s Class A hotels through two decades of turbulent strikes and lockouts. An important force in the city, Local 2’s diverse membership of African-American, white, Latinx, and Asian-American workers has made noisy drum-banging picket lines a vital part of San Francisco’s working-class culture. In 2018, UNITE HERE mounted a nationwide strike against the giant Marriott Corporation. Local 2 stayed out longest—sixty-one days— and achieved a ground-breaking contract that provides controls on the introduction of technologies along with bread-and-butter gains. When the novel coronavirus hit, those gains were suddenly in jeopardy.

David Bacon: When did the union first realize what was going to happen with Covid-19?

Anand Singh: We were tracking the news, seeing 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 Lunar New Year celebrations.

Several members went to Wuhan. When one returned to work at the Marriott, there was an out- cry that she’d been allowed to work among everyone after being in Wuhan. I was poring over Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines on testing and quarantine, and Marriott ended up asking the worker to go home. The hotel paid her for fourteen days, to shelter in place. I do not believe she was ever tested, and once the fourteen days were up she came back to work.

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.

As the crisis was worsening, we started to talk with our members about CDC guidelines and testing, which was not 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 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 hotels were closing entirely.

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.

Food and beverage workers were the first to go. Then housekeeping. Lobbies and public areas went down to maybe a doorman to man- age traffic at the doors. The Hilton Union Square has 1,900 rooms and 900 to 1,000 workers. They started the year at 90 to 100 percent occupancy, and essentially everybody was fully employed. After shelter in place, it collapsed to about thirty workers. They ended up closing their doors altogether.

The big hotels had never had to close their doors. They do not 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 have closed their doors for the first time.

DB: What was the impact on hotel workers and the union?

AS: It was a real crisis for our members, especially the uncertainty around health care. During the pandemic, we secured members’ healthcare benefits through our trust fund. Without true healthcare reform in our country and a single- payer system, we are 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 were extended through then.

Hotels did not 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 is workers’ money. If they are forced to use it now, they will have no other means to survive. Marriott Corporation offered pay to some of their non- union employees, and some members asked me, “What about us?”

We are trying to figure out how to be effective in this moment. It is going to require us to devise a campaign and engage in tactics we normally do not use. One of the problems is that we do not have the ability to congregate.

We are still finding our way. We started with large conference calls and taped video mes- sages 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 have 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 have had some measure of suc- cess, although not nearly enough to make sure workers have a voice.

DB: What are the demands you are making on the industry?

AS: Most important, we need continuation of healthcare. I wish we lived in a country where healthcare was a right for every person, but that is not the case. As long as we are within this system, employers have a responsibility.

Number 2, when business starts to come back and the hotels reopen, we are concerned about the health and safety of our members. They must get proper supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) as well as training to use it— also cleaning in line with CDC and Department of Public Health recommendations.

While we are 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 some- body else in their home, or maybe they are part of a vulnerable community.

When things do return to as normal as they can be, our members’ livehoods 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 are 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 are secure and can be plugged back in and start working again.

Undocumented workers especially have very little to fall back on. Employers have a real responsibility to step up for them . . .

But that is 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 have 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 is been doing the work, day in and day out.

DB: The union also includes workers in the airline kitchens. Are not they considered essential workers?

AS: 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 do not have healthcare 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 do not provide them with what they need. Healthcare 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 is all a cash grab.

Hundreds of our members are still in airline kitchens preparing food . . . Yet most don’t have healthcare to cover their family members.

American Airlines, the kitchens’ biggest client, was one of the companies with its hand out. They got money, but I have not heard they passed any on to the kitchens. I do not 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 2 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?

AS: 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 could not 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, but hundreds of our members are ready and willing. So far, we have not had to go beyond those who normally work in each hotel.

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. Room servers deliver meals but they do not 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 is 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 are doing. We asked if they or somebody they were living with had contracted the virus. About thirty people said yes, and we have 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 are symptomatic or not. We still do not have adequate testing. But we have been demanding on- site testing at quarantine hotels, and it is now available there.

DB: What do you expect when shelter-in-place ends?

AS: There is 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 is 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 is no money. Our response is that they have done quite well over the last ten years and are not destitute. They have adequate means to provide healthcare to workers, to make sure they are safe and secure.

The crisis has had a real financial impact on the union. Over 90 percent of our members are laid off and are not required to pay their union dues. We are working with our staff on how to put people on workshare for a while. We told our top rank-and-file leaders that we are 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 are not going to allow it to stumble or perish. Everybody is committed to making sure we get through this.

We’re not in control of events . . . But . . . we can control the fact that we will not lie down and accept peanuts from a company like the Marriott Corporation . . .

I was reading a book on the history of HERE published years ago, called Union House Union Bar. There is a picture in it from shortly after the 1906 earthquake and fire of the temporary union office. It is a tent at the corner of 7th and Mission Street. The world has collapsed, everything has burned to the ground, and yet members did not 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 eight-hour workday. We are resilient. It is 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 are not in control of events. We are 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 is what they have offered us. We are going to be a fighting union coming out of this. We are 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 is challenging to do it while we are sheltered. Once that order is lifted, it’ll make things slightly easier, but we have got a long road ahead of us.

Between reopening and our contract expiration in 2022, it is going to be a period of protracted struggle. We are 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 are 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 is a moment for us. The power of working people in this country could grow in a way we have not seen in decades, if we seize it and organize and come together.

Author Biography
David Bacon is a writer and photographer, former factory worker and union organizer. He documents workers, migration, and the struggle for human rights. His latest book, In the Fields of the North/En los Campos del Norte (University of California, 2017), documents the lives of farmworkers in photographs and oral histories.