Owners of San Diego’s hotels “will do anything they can to stay nonunion,” says Brigette Browning, and she plans to do something about it. For six years, she has been president of Unite Here Local 30, the labor union that represents 4000 hotel, gaming, and food-service workers in the county. “I would like to be at 7500 members in the next five years.”
It won’t be easy. There is a long tradition of antiunionism in San Diego. The Unite Here national union has been rife with turmoil in recent years; there have been some dissidents and resignations in Local 30, too, but nothing extraordinary.
For some time, conservative and liberal economists have realized that San Diego tourism — while a key industry — does not generate sufficient income that is spent locally. Thus, there is much less of a ripple effect than other industries provide. Hotel and restaurant workers are among the lowest paid in the county. Years ago, the big hotels were owned by local entrepreneurs who would plow their profits back into the San Diego economy. But now only a few of the big hotels are owned by local families. Profits flow back to national chains or real estate investment trusts (REITs) that own the big properties. Similarly, too many national chains dominate the restaurant scene.
Browning says that 22 percent of workers in major San Diego hotels — those that have restaurants and multiple services — are unionized. Here are comparable estimated percentages from some of the major North American markets: New York and San Francisco, 85 to 90 percent; Boston, Honolulu, and Toronto, around 70 percent; and Los Angeles and Chicago, about 50 percent. Las Vegas is so heavily unionized that Unite Here is a political powerhouse in Nevada.
Smaller hotels and motels in San Diego are generally not unionized. Ditto for restaurants, with the exception of food service at places such as the convention center, Qualcomm Stadium, Petco Park, the airport, and the Del Mar racetrack.
Wages and fringe benefits rise with higher unionization. The rates vary in San Diego, but “a union room cleaner will make $14 an hour and a nonunion room cleaner $11,” says Browning.
“The biggest difference is healthcare,” she says. “Our most expensive healthcare is $50 a month for the family.” But a nonunion hotel worker would pay $50 monthly for his or her health coverage alone; insuring the family could cost as much as $500 a month.
With such stark wage differences and a labor surplus in San Diego, employers strenuously resist unionization. But the union can put on pressure: “When we are organizing [a facility], we have actions, including picket lines,” says Browning. “We call for a boycott of the property. We do active outreach to the hotel’s customer base; we often get large swaths of customers to stop coming to the hotel. We wouldn’t get an agreement without this kind of pressure.” Some hotels will finally agree to refrain from pressuring their workers not to unionize. “Eventually, smart employers will decide to become partners, not adversaries.”
Right now, the union is targeting the San Diego Marriott La Jolla, Humphreys Half Moon Inn & Suites, and the Hilton San Diego Mission Valley. It’s been a bitter fight at the Hilton, part of an effort by the national union against the owner, Connecticut-based HEI Hotels & Resorts, which owns and operates hotels around the country.
In May of last year, a hundred Local 30 workers, chanting and beating drums and pots, picketed the Hilton. In August, more than 25 workers at the hotel filed claims with the state labor commission for wage theft and related labor violations. The workers complained that they were not compensated fully for hours worked and were denied breaks and rest periods. The claims came to $250,000. In November, Unite Here workers picketed again.
Seven other Unite Here locals around the country picketed HEI facilities. University endowment funds invest heavily in HEI properties. The national union pressured several universities, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, to jettison their HEI investments.
HEI has announced it is selling the Mission Valley Hilton to Orange County–based Tarsadia Hotels. Some in the union believe that HEI is selling hotels, including the one in Mission Valley, to raise cash to pay off disaffected universities as their investments mature. Wade Gates, spokesman for HEI, denies that. “While we recently sold properties in Boston and Minneapolis, we also acquired properties in Dallas, Newark, Clearwater, Arlington, and Houston,” he says.
The hotel notified employees and others under the state’s Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification system that there could be layoffs of 148 workers on March 2. “In accordance with employment law, we have only warned of a ‘possible layoff’ while the new owner [Tarsadia] makes its own decisions about re-employment of our associates at the hotel after the sale,” says Gates.
“We were not warmly received by Tarsadia,” says Browning. “We took employees to the corporate headquarters in Newport Beach. All we were asking was for them not to fire employees; we were not asking them to go union. We got thrown out. [Tarsadia] called the police.” Tarsadia did not respond to my queries.
There have been many labor-union abuses in San Diego — construction unions scheming with downtown overlords to grab corporate welfare and City employees enjoying excessive salaries and pensions.
But there is a different economic dynamic with extremely low-paid hotel workers. “According to Census data released last year, median earnings of accommodations and food-service workers in San Diego are less than $25,000 a year,” says Corinne Wilson, research and policy lead of the labor-oriented Center on Policy Initiatives. “In San Diego, a family of four, two adults and two kids, to make ends meet without having access to social programs, needs $68,000 a year.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2007–2011 median household income in San Diego County was $63,857. Obviously, you, the taxpayer, are not only subsidizing hotels in the multifarious public-private construction scams, but you are paying for things such as food stamps and medical care that underpaid hotel and restaurant workers must have to stay alive.