San Diego hotels: labor in revolt

Unite Here, the union that represents hotel, gaming, and food-service workers, in front of the Mission Valley Hilton.
  • Unite Here, the union that represents hotel, gaming, and food-service workers, in front of the Mission Valley Hilton.
  • Image by Trinh Le

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.

Brigette Browning (with megaphone)

Brigette Browning (with megaphone)

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.”

In addition to the Hilton, the union is also targeting the Marriott La Jolla and Humphreys Half Moon Inn & Suites.

In addition to the Hilton, the union is also targeting the Marriott La Jolla and Humphreys Half Moon Inn & Suites.

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.

Corinne Wilson

Corinne Wilson

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.

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will they get to bring their protest signs to the unemployment office?

Murphyjunk: That is a good question. Will Tarsadia fire the protesters? I got no answer from Tarsadia. We know there will be layoffs in early March. I don't know about the other hotels. Best, Don Bauder

1st point - I know this is simplistic, but it makes sense that if Hotels are more profitable (while remaining compliant with State Labor laws), then they would grow, hire more people, build more rooms, etc.

2nd point - Illegal aliens are extensively employed within San Diego's Hotels and Restaurants. No mention of them here...do they get a 'hall pass' into the union, if the union succeeds? Do they 'hit the street' and be replaced by current union members? What happens to them?

dpcowboy: The profitability of the hotels will depend on the market: are the tourists coming to San Diego? (In recent months, San Diego tourism has improved, but it lags LA, SF and Orange County, as I have reported in blogs.) Hotel profits may improve, but they won't expand unless they feel the market is there. Yes, foreigners of questionable legality are employed in hotels in San Diego and elsewhere. I don't know about whether they get into the union. It was not a subject of the column. Best, Don Bauder

Hey! I see an huge elephant in this room!

The elephant's name is "illegal immigration"

ImJustABill: The question of illegal immigration in San Diego hotels and other businesses could be a subject for a separate column. Best, Don Bauder

We will probably see selective enforcement ( fines) according to how large the enterprise is.

Murphyjunk: "Too big to jail" applies not simply to banks, but to other enterprises as well. Best, Don Bauder

So here's my take on the illegal immigration issue at this point anyway.

Democrat leaders favor open borders and amnesty because this appeals to their base and legalized immigrants will lean towards voting Democratic. Many GOP leaders favor open borders and amnesty because wealthy business owners employ cheap labor and want it to stay really cheap. Some GOP leaders make a lot of noise about stopping illegal immigrants because it appeals to their base.

There are a few (very few IMO) people in both parties who aren't heavily influenced by politics and actually care about trying to come up with the most fair compromise to a difficult issue - difficult to do when well-intentioned people may have much different views about what is fair.

My take on the most fair solution moving forward would be the following plan:

Comprehensive reform = Secure the border first, amnesty second.

  1. Come down hard on employers hiring illegals. Mandatory e-verify for all employers, violations: fines $10K minimum per illegal employee first offense, $100K/employee 2nd offense, mandatory JAIL TIME for responsible hiring managers at 3rd or more repeat offender employers.
  2. Build the damn fence already.
  3. Armed security along the entire border - bring in the armed forces if you have to.
  4. Once 1-3 are in place, grant amnesty to illegals in the U.S. who can demonstrate 2+yrs living in U.S., 2+ yrs paying taxes (if adults) and no criminal record. Amnesty = 5yrs green card with path to citizenship after 5yrs paying taxes and no criminal record.

Anyway, that's my plan. I don't really see any chance of this passing but this is what would seem like a reasonable compromise to me - but of course others might have much different ideas about what "reasonable" means.

ImJustABill: Yes, Democrats in deciding immigration policy are playing to their constituencies. The big Republican donors use immigrants in their businesses. Conservative orthodoxy favors open borders: free trade means open borders. Some Republicans such as Tea Partiers are strongly anti-immigration because that appeals to their bases. I have always agreed that if the country wants to crack down on use of illegal immigrants, the U.S. employers hiring them should be prosecuted and jailed. But that is not likely to happen. Best, Don Bauder


"Build the damn fence already."

the highly touted electronic fence has already been sold off as gsa scrap

Murphyjunk: Electronic fences keep cows from wandering. Don't they work at the border? Best, Don Bauder

They use electric fences with cows (causing an electric shock), not electronic (a different thing entirely).

dwbat: My error. I don't consort with cows often. Best, Don Bauder

I was raised in Oklahoma, so I've seen (and always stayed clear of) electric fences!

dwbat: In my opinion, Oklahoma should keep its two U.S. senators locked up behind electric fences. Best, Don Bauder

I hear it's not a good idea to relieve yourself on the fence.

ImJustABill: That certainly sounds reasonable -- so reasonable that I won't try it. Best, Don Bauder

Don't like earning minimum wage? You could always get an education, learn some real skills, and become worth more. Naaaahhh, that's too hard, it would be better to join a union, bribe politicians, and just twist your employers' arm to force them to pay more. That's a much better idea.

Why is it I can earn a darn good living without being in a union? Why is it that my employer could fire me any time they like, abuse me, whatever... but they don't? Why is it that they pay me well? Why is it that the only reason my health benefits suck is because of unions and Democrats and Obamacare? Why is it that my health insurance used to be pretty darn good before Obamacare?

If you're in a union, eff you. I hope you starve in the gutter, because YOU are what's wrong with this country. Gimmeee, gimmee, gimme. Why work like a sucker, I just want it all handed to me. What an attitude.

jnojr: About 40 years ago, I was stridently anti-union myself. But as the landscape changed, so did my views. Look, the unions just aren't strong anymore. Private sector unionization is below 10% of workers; public sector unions are the main ones that abuse the system. Unions simply don't have the numbers or the power they once did, and for the economy, this is deleterious. The middle class is dying as the upper 1 or 2% revels in ever-growing piles of lucre. This is completely unbalanced, and very unhealthy for the economy. Best, Don Bauder

Aside from amusing visions of the financial writer inadvertently consorting with cows near electric fences that he imagined were electrONic, he is right about the declining influence of unions in American life. But unions have value and union membership can improve the lives of hotel workers in this San Diego tourist plantation.

monaghan: I am old enough to remember the days of the 1950s and 1960s when a strike by steel or auto workers could tie up the whole economy. Also, many unions employed thuggery to get their way. But unions don't have much power over the economy anymore, although public sector unions can bankrupt a city with excessive pay and particularly pensions. That could still happen to San Diego. Best, Don Bauder

There was certainly a time when unions were needed to protect workers against grossly unfair compensation and unsafe working conditions. But now there are laws that protect against those sorts of things.

I can respect the idea of collective bargaining in trying to get fair compensation.

But I cannot respect all the stupid productivity-killing rules and mentality that unions inevitably force on employers - rules making it practically impossible to fire bad employees, rules making efficiency improvements through technological improvements difficult, seniority-based rather than merit-based raises, ridiculous overtime pay scales, etc.

ImJustABill: Yes, some of those productivity-blocking rules of the past remain. However, it is NOT practically impossible to fire bad employees in most industries, and union rules are not frustrating automation improvements to the extent that you suggest. Yes, seniority-based rules are out of date, and so are excessive overtime pay scales. However, overtime abuses have come down with decreasing unionization. Some European countries have dealt with these abuses, but unfortunately some have not. Best, Don Bauder

Maybe union workers really can be fired and the anecdotes are the exception. But there sure do seem to be a lot of anecdotes about how difficult it is to fire union workers. I thought about posting some of the public sector anecdotes - like how CTA fought against SB1530 because CTA apparently doesn't think even pedophiles should be fired as it would violate union workers' God-given right to keep their job regardless of job performance.

But I thought this private sector anecdote was a little funnier - 13 Chrysler workers were fired for drinking and smoking pot on the job. But of course, the union intervened and they all got their jobs back. http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2012/12/10/chrysler-forced-to-take-back-13-union-workers-caught-drinking-seemingly-getting-high-during-lunch/

ImJustABill: We don't have all the details on why the arbiter ruled the way he did. But what if the CEOs, marketing director, sales personnel, and other management personnel would be fired for getting schnockered at lunch? In the old days of the newspaper business, grizzled reporters often had a bottle of booze in their office drawers. Best, Don Bauder

But then you get fired for writing a bad review of Mr. Kane's wife.

ImJustABill: That kind of thing still happens. Best, Don Bauder

Randy: Yes, relevant. This policy would appear to be an abuse of seniority rules. Trouble is, non-seniority layoff policies are often subjective and arbitrary -- who is cozy with whom? All told, there should be a fair policy that is not seniority-based. We've all had bad teachers who are wizened, beaten down, disinterested in education, going through the motions until they can retire. Best, Don Bauder

The stereotype of the poor teachers being the older ones is pervasive, and incorrect. Many of the new ones start out disinterested in education and going through the motions, and never change. The younger ones can appear eager and can con the kids into enjoying the classes even when they are learning little. Some of the best teachers I see today are the veterans who have honed their craft and put up with no nonsense.

Visduh: No argument there. I was citing anecdotal evidence. Yes, we have all had teachers who were old, over the hill, just killing time until retirement. But at the same time, some of the older teachers are the best ones. That's one reason why promotion on seniority is not a good idea. Some older teachers are bad, but others are among the best. Best, Don Bauder

KPBS: Kris Michell, head of the Downtown San Diego Partnership, said tourism creates 168,000 jobs throughout the region. She said Filner’s delay in signing the marketing contract has already hurt the city.

"Because it’s not signed today, we’re concerned we’re going to lose visitors," she said. "And if we lose visitors, we lose jobs. So it’s not a Democrat or a Republican issue, or an independent issue. It’s really a jobs issue."

In his concluding remarks, Gloria reminded the audience that he was the son of a hotel housekeeper, and was willing to take up a minimum wage increase "directly,'' but not in a way tied to the TMD.

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said the TMD wasn't empowered to impose a minimum wage on hotels and restaurants, anyway.

mperkins: So San Diego should lock itself into a 50-year contract because there is short term pain now? That would be insane. Filner is absolutely right to demand that the contract be a sane one -- and hopefully a short one that can be revisited. I would be very skeptical of anything Kris Michell and other well paid downtown boosters say about jobs being lost. Most of that is hooey. Best, Don Bauder

mperkins: Facts? The convention center and the former ConVis have been cooking the books for years about the economic impact of tourism. The Reader recently showed that the center's numbers are phony, and the city auditor found it to be true. That said, it IS true that tourism is a good industry and DOES contribute to the economy: so give TMD a one-year or two-year contract and do some homework: is the advertising paying off? A long term contract would be insane. Best, Don Bauder

The lodging industry brought a group of senior executives to Washington, D.C. on February 14 to speak with the White House and Congressional leadership about the impact sequestration would have on our industry. AH&LA’s Legislative Action Summit (LAS), set for April 23-24, will provide another key opportunity to demonstrate that while lodging has led the economic recovery with 12 straight quarters of growth, indiscriminate cuts to federal programs threaten to derail this progress. Read more: http://www.hotel-online.com/News/PR2013_1st/Mar13_CongressSequester.html

mperkins: That's one thing we can agree on: sequestration will hurt tourism, just as it will hurt many industries. Best, Don Bauder

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