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Sleepless in San Francisco as Two-Year Hotel Boycott Bangs On

Posted: Jul 13, 2012

Photo: Hotel Frank boycotters in San Francisco, April 12, 2012.

SAN FRANCISCO--“Early in the morning and late at night, we are here and ready to fight,” cry picketers who rally daily for their union boycott of the Hotel Frank in San Francisco. Banging metal pots and blowing whistles, they generate noise heard a block away--and most certainly in the hotel bedrooms overlooking busy Geary Street in the heart of San Francisco’s theater district.

The number of picketers is never more than 15, but they are unrelenting.

Problems began in March 2010, on the steps of City Hall when Wells Fargo bought the hotel in a foreclosure deal. Hotel Frank had a longstanding agreement with Local 2 of the union Unite Here, specifying working conditions and pay. But when the businesses changed hands the contract ended. Workers were put on immediate probation.

Over the following months, workers and two management companies in charge of Hotel Frank, Hotel Project Group (HPG) and Provenance Hotels, were unable to resolve their issues.

According to employees the new management made working conditions untenable by adding to their workloads without increasing their pay. The companies also terminated employees’ medical coverage, sick leave and holiday pay.

Impossible Workloads

The hotel’s maids took action and organized a demonstration amplifying the discrepancies between what they were expected to do and what they could physically accomplish. Under California law, each housekeeper must be allowed a total of 50 minutes in breaks during each shift. But the maids said they were unable to finish cleaning the 15 rooms allocated to each worker.

Following the protest, all of the workers received disciplinary notices on their employment records.

HPG asserts, though, that in July 2010, they offered Hotel Frank workers an interim resolution that they would respect previous agreements on breaks, reduce the number of rooms to be cleaned to 14, pay employee health-insurance premiums under federal COBRA rules and maintain wages.

Although HPG declined to comment on the situation for this article, the company is quoted in a leaflet available from the hotel stating, “This proposal has...been repeatedly rejected by the union.” The union contends that HPG’s offer was disingenuous, making promises with one hand while taking away acceptable compensation and working conditions with the other.

Unable to reach a resolution the union called a boycott in September 2010. Notwithstanding a brief interlude in December 2010, when Wells Fargo sold the hotel to AEW Capital Management, a private equity firm based in Boston, the current owner, the boycott has been ongoing since then.

“Firing Me” Their Biggest Mistake

“This is one of the most intense labor disputes that the union has seen in years,” stated Marc Norton, a main protagonist behind the boycott.

Norton was fired after working as a bellman at the hotel for 12 years. He believes his involvement with the union and vocal defense of employees led to his termination.

“One of their biggest mistakes was firing me,” Norton said. “Now I have all this time to picket.”

Norton believes that the Hotel Frank picket line is distinctive because of the employees. The previous agreement the hotel had with the union meant that satisfied employees stayed in their jobs; some worked there for decades.

He noted that the hotel’s workers know their rights and, with backing from a strong union, are willing to fight for them. “I have never worked with a braver bunch of people,” he said.

For instance, Ali Abid, a bellman who immigrated to the United States from Iraq, has worked for the hotel for three decades. He said he saves his major half-hour break each day until 5 p.m., and then leaves the hotel to joins the picket line in his uniform before returning to work.

Abid conceded that boycotting his own hotel is hard: “They [the management] keep away. They don’t talk to me, and if I do any small thing wrong they pick on me. In 30 years I have never had a disciplinary [reprimand]; now I have had two in one month.”

Among those still employed at the hotel, room cleaners and porters wave placards and shout chants on their breaks or after work. Customers who have been served by friendly staff inside find themselves heckled by them outside.

Members of other unions also join the picket line. Roger Scott, the former president of the teachers union at City College adds his voice to the demonstration at least once a week. He puts the continuing fight down to the management’s ignorance; “I think there aren’t many union towns left in America. The owners of the building are outsiders and not aware of San Francisco traditions.”

San Francisco has a long history of unionism, but Unite Here is a relatively new conglomeration of Unite and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, or HERE. Created in 2005, Unite Here represents workers from the hotel, gaming, food service, manufacturing, textile, distribution, laundry and airport industries. Local 2 represents San Francisco and San Mateo.

Reactions from Blogoshpere to the Street

HPG, which continues to manage the hotel, would not comment on whether the picket line has affected business; but news in the blogosphere travels, and sites such as Trip Advisor inform prospective guests that Hotel Frank is in the center of a very loud union dispute.

The Hotel Frank website deals with the issue light heartedly, stating, “San Francisco is famous for free speech and a few of our fellow citizens regularly exercise their rights on the street outside our doors.” The website tries to assure potential customers that their stay will not be overly affected--but online reviewers are more harsh.

Online reactions range from advising people to find another hotel to comments on the picketers. “There were some scary people protesting outside every morning,” says one. “This is a lousy thing for them to do, using the guests as pawns in their fight. Shame on them for their obnoxious behavior early in the morning for all the customers,” says another.

The hotel has compensated some customers, while offering earplugs to cut out the noise.

One customer, awakened at 7 a.m. by the megaphones, was unable to contain his anger and assaulted a picketer.

An article that Marc Norton wrote also attracted criticism: “I also see that you want Hotel Frank to provide you with free health care? Do you know what is medically proven to promote good health? Sleep. Sleep that you are gleefully depriving innocent people of. Again, more typical union mentality.”

Norton, though, observed that any reaction works in the boycott’s favor by spreading the word that Hotel Frank is not a restful place to stay. “What fool crosses the picket line to stay at the noisiest hotel in San Francisco,” he asked?

On the positive side, cars and bus drivers join the cacophony by honking their horn in solidarity with the picketers, sight-seeing coaches pass by on their tour, and occasionally hotel guests have joined the boycott and canceled their reservation.

Workers Mainly Latino, Filipino

“Some customers say, ‘You’re ruining our holiday.’ I say, ‘These people have got no healthcare.’ You can see them looking at the people of color and immigrants in the picket line, and they are invisible to them.” Of the hotel’s staff, 80 percent are from ethnic groups, predominately Latino and Filipino workers.

Much of the hotel industry relies on foreign workers, but despite worries that many new immigrants have around visas and communication, the Hotel Frank employees remain ready to fight.

According to Julia Wong of Unite Here, “Our union is comprised primarily of immigrant workers and people of color. Over the last several decades, these workers have been at the forefront of courageous and militant actions.” However, some at Hotel Frank still do not join the picket line because they feel it is too dangerous.

After over 18 months of battle, Hotel Frank workers are unlikely to give up now. As Norton puts it, “We can do this forever. We will do this until we win.”

However, the owners of the hotel seem similarly stubborn.

Meanwhile, the National Labor Relations Board conducted a hearing in February and charging the hotel with multiple violations of federal law. The hotel’s owners appealed the ruling, and that decision is pending. For now, the deadlock—and the noise--continue.

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