October 28, 2009

UNITE HERE Keep Rising Against Big Hotels

From the November, 2009 Issue of Labor Notes. www.paulabowd.blogspot.com

As dozens of contracts with hotel giants Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, and Starwood expired in three cities in late summer, UNITE HERE launched another round of battles over health care, pay, and working conditions. The union’s nationally coordinated contract campaign—known as Hotel Workers Rising—centers on building “bargain to organize” deals in its Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles hubs that will allow it to expand while raising contract standards.

The union scored bargaining and organizing victories in 2006 after fighting to line up contract expiration dates for 60,000 workers in six cities.

This year’s showdown finds hotel workers, and their union, at a moment of truth. The hotel giants are making unprecedented attempts to cut health benefits and up workloads in the recession, while the union is opening new organizing fronts that highlight stark contrasts between union and non-union working conditions.

The campaign this year has been hampered, though, by the March split in UNITE HERE, as its former laundry and textile division left and joined the Service Employees (SEIU). The resulting convulsion of raiding and counter-raiding has forced UNITE HERE to siphon staff from Hotel Workers Rising, most recently to battle over cafeteria workers in Philadelphia. (Update: UNITE HERE's Local 634 won a recent NLRB election 2 to 1, despite being outmatched by a heavy SEIU staff invasion.


This year’s target, Hyatt hotels, hasn’t done much to bolster its public image lately: in late August it replaced 98 housekeepers at three non-union Hyatts in Boston with workers hired through a subcontractor at half the pay.

The company wasn’t banking on non-union workers resisting nor on their getting the support of UNITE HERE Local 26. Nearly all the workers met with the union, which strongly backed their fight. Within weeks of the firings, UNITE HERE had held protests nationwide in front of Hyatt hotels, demanding the “Hyatt 100’s” reinstatement.

The company scrambled, offering workers health care through the end of the year and one-year jobs with a temp agency at their former wages.

Workers rejected the offer, saying they didn’t want to replace other workers just as they’d been replaced. Instead, they joined 1,000 demonstrators who gathered in a Jobs with Justice-sponsored, bagpipe-led “march for jobs” October 1 that culminated outside the downtown Hyatt.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick called a statewide boycott of Hyatt, echoed by Boston’s city council and heeded by the city’s cab drivers’ union and dozens of others who switched their reservations in protest.


While Local 26 targeted organizations that had events booked with Hyatt, Boston workers hit the road. The nationwide tour of six cities where the union is organizing began at a rally in Long Beach, where housekeeper Corpornia Belis wept recounting her abrupt dismissal after 25 years of service.

“My shoulders, my back, my knees stayed in that hotel,” she said. “And what did they give me? A garbage bag so that I could empty out my locker.”

The tour dovetails with contract fights in Chicago and San Francisco, where the union staged civil disobedience actions as a first escalation over dozens of contracts in the two cities.

Hotel business is off during the recession, but companies are hardly in line for a bailout. The industry has garnered $200 billion in profits in a decade. Hyatt is squealing about a $36 million loss in early 2009, but raked in $1.3 billion over the last four years. Starwood, Marriott, and Intercontinental are all still making money while asking workers to pony up.


Boston workers arrived in Chicago, where Local 1 is fighting over 30 hotel contracts. “Me-too” rules dictate that the city’s smaller hotels, also with open contracts, follow the agreements hammered out by the major chains.

Hours after Chicago filled several police buses, San Francisco’s Local 2 followed in kind. At two downtown hotels, 1,700 showed up for an action that has sparked a series of smaller pickets.

After rallying outside the Grand Hyatt, Lorna Villanueva and dozens of her co-workers pushed further, taking over the lobby before getting locked up. Ninety-two were arrested, including Villanueva, a 36-year veteran room inspector—who chalked up her fifth protest arrest. This time, she says, the action was to protect future workers from the companies’ two-tier proposals. “We don’t leave anybody behind,” she said.

Talks over a citywide contract continue, with a 14-hotel multi-employer group covering 9,000 workers. One goal of the campaign is to win organizing rights at three city hotels, where drives are at a tipping point.

Hotels are putting the squeeze on. Ringo Mak, a veteran room service attendant, says the Hilton raised prices for the service so high that customers won’t use it—and then cut the department staff in half. “Everyone in the hotel besides the CEO is hurting,” he said.

Mak’s picking up extra hours serving in the hotel restaurant, and, for now, can maintain his family’s medical coverage even with reduced hours. Hilton wants to freeze its pension contributions and eliminate retiree health care.

Villanueva says frontline managers are playing nice while company negotiators lay down a hard line—a strategy that members recall from their 2004 strike and lockout, when a general manager brought breakfast to the picket lines. “Nobody touched the coffee or the donuts,” says Villanueva. “We buy our own food.”

Members continue their increased contributions to the strike fund, as they have for months. “The hotel lost a lot of money in the last contract fight,” says Mak. “I hope they learn their lesson.”


UNITE HERE has achieved 90 percent density in New York and San Francisco through deals ensuring card check at newly built hotels. The union is also devoting resources to several “breakthrough markets” with low union density: Phoenix, Denver, Atlanta, and San Antonio, and those with none: Long Beach and Indianapolis.

The Boston workers made a stop in San Antonio, where a tumultuous organizing drive has stretched out over a year. Worker-leaders who haven’t been fired are getting assigned higher workloads than co-workers. If company intimidation weren’t enough, SEIU showed up to disrupt the drive.

UNITE HERE presented cards from a majority of workers last spring, but SEIU organizers flew in, claiming to be the real bargaining representative—despite having no contact with the worker committee. Hyatt happily obliged SEIU’s request for closed-door meetings, which drew worker protests inside the hotel.

Eventually the NLRB called an election with both unions and “no union” on the ballot. SEIU pulled its staff out before the election, and in July UNITE HERE called off the vote.

Back to square one, Hyatt workers are pressuring the city council to support unionization at the hotel, which was constructed with city incentives on city land. They’re also hoping the nationwide campaign will tip their drive over the top.

While local committees build muscle and multiply, the International is trying to swing organizing deals with the chains. The union reached agreements in 2006 with Starwood and Hilton (where it has the highest density), laying out a broad framework for new organizing rights. This year’s target, Hyatt, is not amenable to such talks.

UNITE HERE researchers say that upwards of 80 percent of hotel workers are still without a union, but 14,000 have joined in 35 metropolitan areas in the last five years—a 14.5 percent gain.

The union is challenged on three fronts: battling global corporations in a recession, keeping a rival union at bay, and creating a culture where hotel workers are at the fore of a democratic union.

Though a loyal membership has repeatedly shown its willingness to confront management, some of the union’s former organizers are raising concerns about the degree of rank-and-file involvement in decisions shaping local campaigns.

In a public letter, a group of ex-organizers at San Francisco hotels challenged UNITE HERE to make good on its professed “bottom-up” strategy, decreasing staff’s role and opening more space for worker control as contracts expire in several major cities next year.

October 13, 2009

Teacher Reformers Prepare for Battle over Public Education


When President Obama laid out his plan to reshape public education this summer, he wasn’t subtle with his symbolism: he was introduced by an eighth-grader from a charter school. Soon after, teacher activists from LA, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., met in Los Angeles. The reformers shared strategies to build union caucuses with parents that shape an alternative to the federal education plan as it takes form in each city.


The president’s “Race to the Top” fund, championed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, promises billions in federal dollars to cash-strapped states. But there will be “winners and losers,” Obama says.

The unprecedented payout takes a bead on the teachers unions: money will flow to districts that alter pay and seniority provisions in union contracts and states that roll out the carpet for (mostly non-union) charter schools.

The reformers will meet again in October for a workshop on gearing up their unions to fight. They’ll organize forums and joint press releases in each city before the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) convention in Seattle next year—where they will bring a vision of education reform that puts educators, not “education management organizations,” in the driver’s seat.


Nonprofit and private charter school operators stand to make big gains from the federal incentive package. Several states have already amended their laws to expand charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed.

The Los Angeles Unified School District took a big step in that direction in August. Charter operators and other groups will get a crack at running 250 city schools—including 50 brand new, taxpayer-funded buildings.

“They got just what they didn’t have: real estate,” says Alex Caputo-Pearl, a United Teachers Los Angeles board member.

Since 2005, a reform coalition has run UTLA, bolstered by growing rank-and-file engagement in various caucuses, including the Progressive Educators for Action, which helped propel the current leadership into power.

The union has fought hard against layoffs, charters, and cuts to funding and health care benefits—and also internally, over union strategy. Teachers from several LA caucuses joined the July sessions, including some who launched hunger strikes against layoffs and criticized union leaders’ cancellation of a planned one-day strike in May. Some caucus members say the union’s effort to stem the charter tide was too little, too late.

All agree that UTLA’s focus needs to center on charters—and fast. Proposals for the first round of new schools are due by November, giving charter operators with ready-made proposal templates a distinct advantage.

UTLA Vice President Joshua Pechthalt says the union is moving on a multi-faceted plan as bidding season opens, including possible legal challenges to the motion, which does not honor district rules ensuring teachers and parents a deciding vote on any charter conversion. Instead, the school superintendent will recommend bidders to the school board.

UTLA contract language ensures teachers will be union in any new school built to relieve overcrowding, but it’s still unclear whether the board plans to respect that.

LA has the most charters in the nation, and adding hundreds more threatens to erode enrollment in public schools (which affects their funding) as well as union strength.

The union is focused on organizing charters, following a victory this spring at Accelerated Charter, where teachers approached UTLA about joining up.

Union leaders are also working with teachers at schools targeted for conversion, and plan to put in their own bids for union-run schools (the Boston AFT local just opened its first this year).

Pechthalt says the teacher-led vision “is not rocket science.” It entails democratic control over budgets and curriculum that teachers, parents, and administrators can tailor to the school site. Past attempts to publicize such plans in the face of rampant teacher-bashing in the media, however, have been difficult.

“We have to improve on that,” says Pechthalt, “so that after a few months people can say, ‘I agree with the teachers’ vision for schools.’”


In a gentrifying Latino neighborhood in Chicago, Kristine Mayle learned firsthand about the “renaissance” Obama’s Department of Education wants to bring to the rest of the nation.

The district shut down the award-winning De La Cruz middle school where she worked until last year, citing low enrollment and the need for major renovations—only to lease the building to the charter operator United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) a year later for $1.

Community organizations and parents from a feeder elementary school led hearings, and fought to extend De La Cruz’s life. But the district, which had already authorized UNO schools in the area, was intent on the operator, despite its promise not to reopen the building for charter use.

“On the last day of school, the board sent workers to fix our basement floor—which had been leaking for years,” Mayle says.
UNO has a reputation for cherry-picking students—Mayle says UNO students were routinely kicked back to her school. And the operator hires very few special education teachers, failing to maintain De La Cruz’s legacy as a highly touted special ed provider.


Duncan’s national initiative was born in Chicago, where charters continue to expand under a privatization plan he brokered as schools chief in 2004.

The Chicago Teachers Union has lost 6,000 members and 70 neighborhood schools have closed since 2001, making a new law that expands charter schools in the city especially foreboding.
“There really was no pushback from the CTU at the onset of this program, and now we have to play catch-up,” said Kenzo Shibata of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE).

“We've been fighting this from the beginning,” said CTU chief of staff John Ostenburg, noting the union’s yearly actions against closings, and its stalled push in the statehouse for a moratorium on Duncan’s plan.

The AFT-affiliated CTU negotiated card check rights at new charters, and the local recently organized several campuses of the state’s largest operator.

Several CORE members were at the LA meeting. Originally formed in spring 2008 to push the CTU to stand up to the city’s school restructuring plan, the youthful caucus grew quickly, becoming a viable challenger to CTU’s incumbents in next May’s election.

CORE’s website offers news and grievance forms, and features its candidates for pension trustee, who promise to forestall plans to slash the teachers’ fund. Members are active on Chicago-area news and blog comment sections, an attempt to counter teacher-bashing. And Shibata says a “Twitter army” posts live reports from school board meetings and teacher actions. “We’re everywhere,” he says.

Over the winter, teachers worked with the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM), a collection of community organizations and parent groups, turning out more than a thousand people to protest 22 slated school closures.

“The CTU finally joined the protest, and then released a flyer to delegates saying they organized it,” says Shibata. “Either way, we got them out, and won a big victory.” The board decided not to close six schools.



Charters are knocking on the door at dozens of New York schools too, regardless of reputation. Public School 123, for example, now shares a building with Harlem Success Academy, after the city’s Department of Education (DOE) forced the elementary school (good test scores and all) to relinquish its third floor to the charter operator.

Over the summer, HSA hired contractors to dismantle classrooms while district dollars paid for renovations—of HSA’s floor only. Parents and teachers gathered outside, chanting, “Paint the whole school!”

When classes began in September, teachers and parents protested again after finding the school in disarray: movers had piled teachers’ equipment into unmarked boxes to make way for HSA. A special education class was moved to a dusty basement, and other classes were pushed into the library.

HSA hums a floor above the chaos.

“The charters just tell the city they need more space,” says Brian Jones, a teacher activist, “and the DOE is doing back-flips to make it happen.”

The charter companies focus on New York’s largely Black neighborhoods. “You don’t see charter conversions happening on the Upper East Side,” Jones says. They are exploiting a legacy of racial tension that has festered within the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) since 1968, when the union went on strike to protest attempts by African-American communities to take more control over school management and curriculum.

A handful of reform groups continue to chip away at the UFT’s ruling Unity caucus, in power for four decades. Sally Lee of Teachers Unite, which organizes workshops on the union and workplace rights, says decades of Unity caucus rule have made the union either an enigma or a stigma for new teachers—who see themselves more as individual activists in their classrooms.

“We can only address this system by collectively organizing,” says Lee, whose organization primes new teachers to run for chapter chair. “And guess what? We already have this powerful teacher organization to do it.”

Lee and other New York teachers shared cautionary tales at the LA meeting about AFT President Randi Weingarten. As president of the New York local, she negotiated a 2005 contract that included merit pay and the oddly-named “mutual consent,” which allows principals to ignore seniority when filling open teaching positions.

As charters grow from inside public schools, they hire non-union teachers, increasing the ranks of displaced veteran teachers. When the contract opens in October, city leaders will push hard to fire teachers who can’t land a job after a year.

The takeover has been achieved quietly in Detroit and D.C., where around half of school kids in each city are now enrolled in charters.

Under the emergency control of a state-appointed manager, Detroit opened 29 fewer schools this fall and put many high schools under control of private management groups.

The next target is the teachers’ contract. Proposed 10 percent wage cuts, elimination of step increases, and increased fines for work stoppages from $250 to $7,500 per day drew thousands of Detroit teachers to protest in late August. Talk of a strike circulated.

The union leadership agreed instead to extend contract talks until the end of October—a delay that’s become familiar for teachers in D.C. A small, outspoken group of teachers and union officials there has challenged the threat of a concessionary contract for two years.

Vice President Nathan Saunders and Trustee Candi Peterson have criticized President George Parker (and Weingarten, who joined the D.C. talks over the winter) for keeping teachers out of the loop and failing to mobilize rank-and-file pressure against schools chief Michelle Rhee. The teacher activists drew Parker’s ire this fall for publicizing details of a draft contract, which included plans for large buyouts of veteran teachers and a “mutual consent” provision like New York’s.

Union leaders at the LA meeting shared strategies for caucus building with Saunders, who is gearing up for an election run in 2010. Upon return, the D.C. duo pre-empted Rhee’s announcement of coming layoffs, calling the community to join rank-and-file educators at a protest in front of district offices.

Wherever the Secretary of Education has sold his “reforms,” large chunks of public money have disappeared into private hands—and local unions find themselves under siege. Weingarten has maintained her signature openness to it all, as long as reforms remain fair for teachers and good for students. The National Education Association, by contrast, came right out and said it: Obama’s plan for more charters, more reliance on test scores, and more union concessions, does neither.

Duncan has stumped for his plan coast to coast. Teacher reformers, now equipped with a fledgling network of activists, aren’t waiting any longer to go national themselves.