LaborNotes April 1995

"Can Teams in San Francisco Hotels Open a New Era in the Industry"

by Nathan Newman

Are there labor-management teams that benefit workers and their unions? San Francisco hotel workers will begin preliminary meeting with managers in "problem solving" groups in hotels across the city under terms established in contract negotiations last fall. And the union leadership and the members feel this new relationship is an almost pure gain for the hotel workers in the city.

Now, this is not an argument for teams across the board, but the process established in San Francisco seems close to the ideal of what a union could desire if it's going into such a relationship. Before a "team" contract was even signed, the two major San Francisco hotel unions--HERE Local 2 and SEIU Local 14- -began meetings with twelve major SF hotel managements long before the contract was even negotiated. In an almost unprecedented manner, multiple corporations in a single city sat down with two major unions covering their 3000 employees to discuss how to remake their industry

For thirteen weeks, line managers and rank-and-file workers met together with professional independent facilitators to discuss the long-term health of the industry and a changed relationship between management and their workers. Separate groups were constituted to discuss improvements in the kitchen, banquets, housekeeping, the overall food & beverage department, and improving coordination of door, bell, and telephone operators. All of this before any changes in the contract were even made.

The concrete results of the process was a 124-page report dealing with proposed pilot projects for improving teamwork, training, scheduling, and discipline. The process helped the unions and hotels sign a contract that satisfied both sides and that was extended to the rest of the major unionized hotels in the city (involving an additional 2000 employees) that hadn't participated in the study process. The contract signed by the participating hotels and the unions involved in October 1994 was declared a "living contract" that would be slowly modified as pilot projects are tried at test hotels and expanded at a negotiated pace as both sides agree to changes.

Since unions demanded some kind of security if they were going to engage in any teams, the hotels also agreed to a partial union "successorship clause" to make it less likely that new owners of any hotel could abandon the union contract. An additional $1.8 million over the next two years was dedicated by hotels to the citywide Education Fund to improve and coordinate training for workers across the city. And the hotels and unions received a $100,000 federal grant to fund outside facilitators to institute the new "problem-solving" teams in each hotel. Additionally, the unions and the hotels agreed to pursue at least three broad "pilot projects" recommended from the study groups in order to explore ways to improve productivity. Importantly, no changes in work rules were negotiated in exchange for this agreement; instead, all changes will be made citywide only after the union is convinced they benefit workers in the pilot hotels were changes are tested.

Sherie Chiesa, the retiring head of Local 2 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees (HERE) union, notes that the process forced both sides to listen to the other, and most importantly, it built trust. "Trust. That's the key," says Chiesa. "It doesn't happen without that. It just doesn't happen." She cautions that it will be a slow process, but she is encouraged. "What we're saying is that we don't trust each other AT THIS POINT to do very much, but we're working on it."

One reason the union goes into the team relationship with the hotels with some confidence is that the union showed the hotels the alternative to dealing with their workers fairly. As they were signing the agreement with most of the major hotels, the union ran a militant 11-week strike at the Mark Hopkins, a major downtown union hotel that tried to unilaterally demand consessions from the union. Workers from around the city picketed the Mark Hopkins, shut the hotel restaurants down, and destroyed business at the hotel until the management retreated and signed a contract that was not only substantially the same as the rest of the city, but had some provisions even more favorable to the union.

Overall, the hotel unions saw the study group process as a chance to reorder their relationship with the hotels to stop the periodic attacks on the existence of the union and to create a space to go out and organize non-union hotels. The problem the union faced, as faced by unions across the country, was how hard it has become to organize new hotels. In their first major recent organizing effort at a hotel called the Parc 55, the unions had a majority of workers signing cards asking to be represented by the union within months of starting the organizing drive in 1989, but the hotel refused to sign a contract until 1993, committing over 100 Unfair Labor Practices and delaying recognition until a boycott had undermined their business. With that victory, the unions hope they can begin a more serious organizing job across the city in conjunction with the new relationship with the unionized hotels.

Like the Parc 55, events at the Sir Francis Drake highlight why the union is careful in approaching change. In 1993, the Sir Francis Drake was sold to new owners, all the workers were fired and the contract with the union terminated. In light of "the Drake", the unions saw any new relationship as contingent on new rules to require that if a hotel was sold, the workers jobs and their contract would survive the transition. The union was ready to concede incremental changes in work rules in exchange for improvements in job security, symbolized by "successorship" protection for union members in case of the sale of any hotel. And the union demanded that they be full partners in any new "teams" established in the hotels.

One key part of the union partnership was a refusal to stop being a union even in team meetings. Employee participants usually caucused together after each session to compare notes, which irritated some managers. Most facilitators and union leaders, however, praised the caucusing system as a way for employees to gain confidence for the next session and a way of recognizing the intimidation individual employees experience in speaking before managers.

At the union hotels involved in the multi-employer study process, both the employers and the employees are gearing up for the next challenge of the "high performance" process: moving the study process into each individual hotel to solve problems on a day-to-day basis. Hopes are high that San Francisco may be creating a new relationship between employers and employees that could preserve a living wage for workers and profitability for hotels into the next century.

[Nathan Newman is a former staff organizer with HERE International and currently co-director of UC-Berkeley's Center for Community Economic Research.]