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Dashing Mayor to the Rescue

San Francisco hotel workers strike heading in the wrong direction as millionaire mayor gets involved
Richard Mellor
Retired member, AFSCME Local 444
Oakland CA

There was considerable chatter on the hotel workers picket lines in San Francisco today after the City's mayor threatened to walk the picket lines. Mayor Gavin Newsome also said he would call for a public boycott of the hotels and get the city to stop doing business with them if they did not end their lockout and allow employees back to work for a 90-day cooling off period.

Many of the workers I spoke to on the picket lines I visited were hopeful that the mayor would get them back on the job. Some 4000 members of UNITE/HERE Local 2 have been off the job for four weeks now. The Union initially called a two week strike at four hotels but the employers responded by locking out the employees at all ten hotels and refused to let them back to work after the two-week strike deadline.

Reading the reports in the local papers this morning, the dashing young millionaire mayor sure sounded like he was on the side of working people in this dispute. "I will do everything in my power to see to it that the city and county of San Francisco does not do business with those hotels... .." he said. He added, "We have people who are suffering out on the streets and in turn the image of the city is suffering." (SF Chronicle 10-26-04)

Newsome's real concern of course is the image of the city and that means an image that might offend business. Labor peace is the face that must be put forward. Strikes, disputes, workers angry with their bosses, this is not good for business. Also, despite the fact that the Union leadership has agreed not to actually picket entrances to hotels, as their main strategy is to get people to boycott them, the mayor is concerned, as all employers are, that at some point if this continues, the membership's anger could become harder to control. The Union leadership has gone along with pretty much any restriction that the city has put on them. Picketers can't make too much noise, they can't picket in front of the entrances, they must stay within the tape, they can't bang their sticks anymore on their signs, they can't harass the scabs, they can't, they mustn't they shouldn't. In fact, many of the picketers I spoke to today actually think it is illegal to picket entrances to businesses. When I explained to one older worker that it wasn't, he said, "well my boss said we can't and we have to do what she says", and he pointed to the young Union rep in her mid-twenties.

The other reason Newsome wants the workers back on the job and the two sides talking is that both he and the Union leaders are coming under pressure to do something from the workers themselves. Newsome is confident that the employers can pretty much get what they want at the negotiating table and it will be much harder to get workers back out after they go back so leverage will be lost. Back on the job, the possibility of a strike breaking through the conservative grip of the Union leadership does not exist. The Union leaders on the other hand can say they fought the good fight and will hopefully end up with slightly fewer concessions than originally demanded. This is called the defensive strategy or damage control.

Nowhere was Newsome quoted as calling for a victory to the workers or for the employers to concede to the Union's demands or he would carry out his threats. His contempt for working people is clear. Going on strike is a serious issue and takes great sacrifice particularly for low waged immigrant workers as many of the hotel employees are. He told the Chronicle that, "The hotels now have gotten their two weeks in after the two-week strike... .fair is fair. As far as I'm concerned you're even. Now let's all grow up and get back to work." "Let's all grow up" Does he think this is a game?

This year, shortly after being elected with support from the majority of the San Francisco labor leaders, the mayor shifted the city's economic crisis on to the backs of working people at the behest of his corporate masters. With the help of Union leaders he forced city workers to put 7.5% of their paychecks toward their retirement fund for the next two years. Public workers had already taken a 7.5% pay cut the previous year and a 1.7% pay-cut the year before that. (SF Chronicle 12-13-03) The 7.5% retirement contribution/paycut made this year by city employees was approved as Andy Stern President of SEIU, spoke to the SEIU convention held in the city. I am sure the Mayor was also a keynote speaker. There was no public report of Stern saying anything about his members taking such cuts or attacking Newsome for implementing them..

We should not be fooled by the millionaire mayor's tricks. After San Francisco Union leaders helped him get elected and pushed him on their members, he warned them in the press prior to his attacks on working people, "I never made one commitment to any public employee union with regard to any consideration of contracts or negotiation as relates to my refusal to consider layoffs or rollbacks or whatever."

Relying on a millionaire mayor like Newsome is going in the wrong direction. Getting people back out on strike after going back to work will be almost impossible, even if the labor leaders wanted to do it. Instead, the strike should be expanded, strengthened. The San Francisco Central Labor Council should set a date for one-day work stoppage as a first step in resolving this dispute in our favor. Any attacks on pickets by the police or the politicians should be met with further escalation. The community can be won over if the Unions fight for health care for all and add other social demands in this struggle. Given their record, it is unlikely that the Local 2 leadership or the Labor Council will take this path without pressure from below to do so. The struggle to change the course of the union is not a welcome one, fighting the employers is hard enough, but relying on the employers' politicians like Newsome will dig us a deeper whole that will be even harder to get out of in the future.

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