ONA12 Greeted by Hyatt Protestors

Image: Union Protest

Union stages a loud protest outside of the Hyatt Regency, San Francisco on Thursday. (Jill Knight/ONA Student Newsroom)

Unite Here! Local 2 and other union supporters picketed and chanted outside the Hyatt Regency San Francisco during the Online News Association’s annual conference this morning. Protesters carried signs reading “Boycott Hyatt” and “Hope for Housekeepers.”

Nearly 40 people participated in the protest. Hyatt workers stood inside the entrance apologizing to guests as they entered and left the hotel, and handing out fliers of their own regarding their diversity and philanthropic efforts. Hyatt general manager David Lewin, watching from outside the hotel, said the demonstration was unprecedented.

“We bring out our managers and do our best to show our customers how much we care,” Lewin said.

Lewin said the demonstration was part of the reason why the hotel and Unite Here! haven’t been able to come to a contract agreement. Unite Here! wants its worker contracts to allow card checks, which would essentially allow the union to strike at any time.

“No one could agree to solidarity language that says ‘the contract is only enforceable when we want to enforce things,'” Lewin said. “That really speaks to me that the union doesn’t want a contract. They want to disrupt a business and disrupt its members.”

The group confronted ONA12 keynote speaker Jose Antonio Vargas outside the hotel 30 minutes before his speech, urging him not to go inside to give his speech, citing his own immigration status. Vargas gained fame last year for his New York Times Magazine essay “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.”

“I have to deliver this speech. I’m sorry I have to,” Vargas said. He added he is not staying at the Hyatt.

Unite Here! Local 2, a union representing 12,000 restaurant and hospitality workers in San Francisco and San Mateo, sent an email to ONA members last month urging them to support striking workers by boycotting the hotel. Union officials say 700 of its members who work at the Hyatt Regency and Grand Hyatt as housekeepers, cooks and waiters are seeking better working conditions and contract terms.

In the days before the conference, the union stepped up the effort on Twitter, using the #ONA12 and #HyattHurts hashtags in tweets such as: “Hey #ONA12! What time is the session of copy and paste? #HyattHurts #ONAuncon.” They also tweeted anecdotes about individual union members.

Union spokesperson Julia Wong said the group has been in a dispute with Hyatt Hotels Corporation since June 2010, seeking a more fair contract and an end to what the union calls abusive practices. She said workers have three demands: that Hyatt implement recommendations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to reduce risk of injury of housekeepers; that the hotel remain neutral when workers try to organize; and that they finally settle union contract disputes in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Waikiki and Chicago. Union workers there have been without contracts for almost three years, Wong said. She said the union was disappointed that ONA is not supporting workers and is asking its members to get involved with a labor dispute by hosting its event at the Hyatt.

The two-year effort is taking a toll on the union workers, Wong said.

“This is not an easy decision to make for our members when customers decide not to honor the boycott,” Wong said. “It takes away shifts and work for the workers; it has not been an easy couple of years, but they are committed to continuing.”

Besides Unite Here!, the hotel’s workers are represented by three other unions, including Stationary Engineers Local 39, International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 856 and District Council 16 Painters and Allied Trades. David Lewin, general manager of the Hyatt Regency San Francisco, said of the five unions, only Unite Here! strikes every few years. Despite allegations of abuse and dangerous worker conditions, Lewin said the average employee in San Francisco has worked for the two Hyatt hotels between 12 and 16 years. He said, looking at the hotels’ worker turnover rates, “We have some of the happiest employees in the hotel industry.”

Lewin said ONA members can expect things to be “business as usual” during their stay. He said the hotel has seen little impact from the boycott.

“By staying here, you support the workers (Unite Here!) is trying to undermine,” he said. “We think it’s gross they are using their own members as pawns for their own agenda. It’s just disgusting.”

Wong said she took to the Internet to track down email addresses for ONA members before sending last month’s message urging attendees to honor the boycott. Though that email had some members worried, ONA president Jim Brady said it was too late to even consider backing out of the Hyatt contract. That, Brady said, would have cost ONA a “potentially fatal” six figures. The goal is to make sure the convention goes as planned. ONA has steps in place in case there’s an unforeseen disruption, he said.

“The same way the union has to make the best decision for its membership and the Hyatt has to make the best decision for its clients, as president of the organization my job is to make the best decisions for ONA,” Brady said.