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Women Immigrants -- New Face of U.S. Labor

New America Media, News Report//Photos, David Bacon Posted: Sep 30, 2009

Lucy Wong and Lupe Chavez are the faces of labor activism in today's San Francisco -- the workers who have inherited the legacy of the 1934 General Strike and the rise of the longshoremen. Wong and Chavez are immigrant women from the two countries that have contributed a new generation of workers and union militants to the city's labor movement -- China and El Salvador.

On Sept. 24, the two marched with 1,000 others outside the hotels where they work, making beds and cleaning up after San Francisco's number one source of revenue: tourists. Their employers are not local owners of big hotels, as they might have been decades ago. Instead, they are giant corporations that manage properties across the globe -- Hyatt, Westin, Hilton, Intercontinental and Starwood.

To even the odds between local workers and global employers, Wong, Chavez and their union, UNITE HERE Local 2, have developed new tactics for labor protests. The most important is the mass mobilization of workers and supporters, culminating in civil disobedience. Dozens of arrests are designed to send a message, not just to the Hyatt and Westin chains where the sit-ins took place, but also to the political powers in the city. Without a new contract, the union is prepared to disrupt the normal order of business, just as the longshoremen did on the waterfront 80 years ago.

On Sept. 24, their parent union, UNITE HERE, also organized sit-ins at hotels belonging to the same chains in Chicago, where the union contract has also expired. This too sends a message. The union will not just challenge these large corporations in one local area, but will coordinate its actions from city to city. If the contract isn't settled soon, next year other agreements expire in Hawaii and elsewhere, and the conflict could spread. That is reminiscent of what took place in San Francisco in 2004 to 2006, where workers held a strike, were locked out, and then worked two years without a contract in order to gain the ability to negotiate with the hotel chains simultaneously in many cities.

In San Francisco, the main complaint voiced by Wong and Chavez is that the giant hotels are demanding that they pay for their medical insurance. They charge that despite a weak economy and falling tourism, the industry generated more than $200 billion in profits over the past decade. Given that insurance premiums are increasing at double-digit annual percentages, the employers' demand would cut deeply into wages. Chavez can no longer even live in San Francisco on a hotel cleaner's salary -- a huge change from the days when longshoremen not only lived in the city, but also exercised substantial political influence in its politics.

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