Union presses hotel boycott as Pride nears
by Tony K. LeTigre
Though Pride is viewed as a celebration of freedom and self-expression by many, it is also a reminder that the struggle is not yet over – as illustrated by the ongoing Hyatt Hotel boycott in San Francisco.
The boycott, organized by Unite Here Local 2, represents an alliance between hospitality workers in San Francisco and the LGBT community, including longtime gay activist Cleve Jones.
The union and five hotels are in the midst of contract negotiations.
"We want people in the LGBT community to know that the Hyatt likes to position itself as a friend – spending large amounts of money on marketing campaigns aimed directly at our community – but when you look closer, those claims are exposed as complete hypocrisy," Jones said.
Jones has been involved with the website http://www.sleepwiththerightpeople.org, which is connected to the Unite Here website at http://www.hotelworkersrising.org. The two sites together document alleged anti-worker and anti-gay behavior from Hyatt, and keep a list of boycotted hotels.
The boycott list currently includes five in San Francisco: the three Hyatt properties (the Grand Hyatt, Hyatt Fisherman's Wharf, and the Hyatt Regency) as well as Le Meridien and the smaller Hotel Frank.
"Hyatt has distinguished itself as one of the most aggressive companies when it comes to workers' rights, and is particularly hostile to housekeepers," said Ian Lewis, a research analyst for Unite Here. "The growth of corporate power and attacks on working people go hand in hand with attacks on GLBT people."
Lori Alexander, director of field public relations for North America for Hyatt Hotels, denied that Hyatt is anti-union and said the company is one of the best employers for gay and lesbian workers in the country.
"Unite Here is stalling negotiations and spreading false rumors about our work environment as part of its national agenda to pressure Hyatt into accepting card check – an organizing tactic designed to increase union membership and dues," Alexander said. "Card check eliminates employees' right to vote by secret ballot on union representation."
As for anti-gay accusations, Alexander described Hyatt as a company that "embraces and achieves diversity," noting the 100 percent rating that Hyatt received on the Human Rights Campaign's 2011 Corporate Equality Index.
She also referred to Hyatt being named one of the "Top 10 Gay-Friendly Employers in America" by the Advocate and DiversityInc.com in the past, as well as Hyatt's sponsorship of the GLAAD Media Awards and the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association.
Don Olson is a gay man – "about as out as you can get" – who has worked at the Grand Hyatt in San Francisco since 1980.
"I can honestly say I've never felt discriminated against by the company for being gay or for being part of a union," Olson said. "But I take issue with how they treat us as workers."
Olson, who has been arrested twice while taking part in the union's battle with his employer – including a 2009 strike at the Grand Hyatt and a sit-in last year – said that history repeats itself every few years when the union's contract comes up for renewal.
"This time they're using the economy as an excuse to cut pensions, cut benefits, and freeze wages," Olson said. "Occupancies are back up, rates are back up, and Hyatt is a publicly traded company, so their profits are posted. We know how much they're making."
Hyatt reported that as of June 30, 2010 it had over $1.6 billion in cash and short-term investments available.
Part of the union's effort to draw attention to the boycott is to urge visitors, including those associated with conferences and those coming to the city for Pride festivities, to book elsewhere.
"I'm one of the people who calls people and groups who are planning to stay at the Hyatt and asks them to stay elsewhere," Olson said. "We've had people move entire conferences, costing the hotel millions of dollars."
Sasha Wright is a staffer with Pride at Work San Francisco, a national organization that is the LGBT affiliate of the AFL-CIO. Wright participated in a 2010 flashmob that combined fun with political action, performing a parody of a Lady Gaga hit called "Don't Get Caught in a Bad Hotel."
A video of that performance, carried out at the Westin St. Francis as well as the Grand Hyatt, went viral on YouTube, with over 330,000 hits to date. It can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-79pX1IOqPU.
"There are 33,000 hotel rooms in San Francisco, so visitors for Pride are not without options," Lewis said. "But more than that, people should be willing to find alternative accommodation, rather than choosing to put money in the pocket of a corporation that is trying to split our communities apart."
Hyatt's Alexander offered a different take on the issue.
"Boycotts of our properties only hurt the associates who work there," she said. "Lost business will mean a reduction in shifts and tips for the very people Unite Here claims to represent."
For his part, Jones is committed to helping the union.
"The membership and influence of unions in San Francisco has diminished, and that's part of why supporting Unite Here Local 2 is so important," Jones said. "Unite Here is an example of a fighting union that is actually growing in the private sector, one that is very engaged in fighting for the rights of its members, but also engaged in the communities around it."