The Face of Labor in the Streets (Photo Essay)

The Face of Labor in the Streets (Photo Essay)

San Francisco – This Labor Day the faces in the streets in cities across the U.S. are those of hotel workers, picketing some of the world’s most luxurious establishments. In San Francisco, cooks, room cleaners, housemen and laundry workers laid siege to the Downtown Hilton recently, demanding that the corporation negotiate a new contract with their union, UNITE HERE Local 2.

This fall, the conflict between the union and the hotel corporations is spreading to over 40,000 workers in at least nine cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto, Minneapolis, Monterey, Vancouver, Honolulu, and Washington DC.

The San Francisco agreement expired on August 14. Since then, the union has been trying to bargain in the middle of an economic depression. According to Local 2 President Mike Casey, “The hotels are trying to exploit the bad economy to lower benefits. That’s just not acceptable for corporations that are making significant profits, even now.” The owners of the Hilton chain, the Blackstone investment group, told Wall Street analysts that it had $12.6 billion in available capital. CEO Stephen Schwarzman was given a compensation package of $1.39 billion in 2008.

San Francisco’s largest hotels are demanding cuts in health and retirement benefits, and increased workloads. The luxury chains want workers to begin paying for their healthcare premiums – $35/month this year, $115/month next year, and $200/month the year after. A typical San Francisco hotel worker earns $30,000 per year, and many can’t work a full 40-hour week.

One Hilton housekeeper, Lupe Chavez, explains: “Some of us don’t go on breaks or take shorter lunch breaks in order to finish. At the end of the day I’m exhausted. When I get home I just want to sleep. Now they’re talking about increasing the hours needed to qualify for health benefits. That is what we’re trying to avoid. I’m lost my health at the hotel, and all they think about is money.”

Hilton workers mounted a dawn to dusk picket line late last month, chanting to guests, “Don’t check in, check out!” These are their faces – all races and ages, together on the picket line, out in the street.