Guest Commentary: Transpo Advocates Should Support Hotel Workers

Transportation advocates were caught off-guard last month when the ANSWER Coalition and other leftist groups declared that extended parking meter hours represented an assault on the poor and working class, despite the overwhelming evidence that the poor and working class are predominantly more reliant on transit than cars for transportation. The absence of these organizations in earlier and ongoing struggles against Muni fare hikes and service cuts discredited their umbrage somewhat, but important questions remain: How in touch are local transportation advocates with communities of color, working families, and immigrants? And how can we reach out and improve our connections?

Recent three-day strikes by workers in UniteHere! Local 2 against the Grand Hyatt Hotel near Union Square and the Palace on New Montgomery Street promise a long, contentious struggle for a new contract between the union and 31 hotels in the City. This battle offers an opportunity for transportation advocates to act immediately as well as to lay the groundwork for future alliances. We should support the hotel workers for many reasons. The issues are political, practical, moral, and environmental.

Bus riders, cyclists, and pedestrians who have long been marginalized should find it easy to identify with the invisible workers in hotels and restaurants in their desire to be treated with respect and dignity. The membership of Local 2 reflects San Francisco, with large numbers of immigrants and women, many in positions of leadership in the union. Chants and print materials are cranked out in several languages.

About 60 percent of Local 2 workers live in San Francisco, and another 15 percent live in Daly City. An overwhelming majority, 90 to 95 percent, take public transportation to work, according to Riddhi Mehta, press coordinator for the union. Their shifts, like those of hospital workers, go around the clock, so they must deal with poor service late at night.

Earnings to support a family are in the $30,000 per-year range, compared with the $4,808,961 earned last year by the CEO of Starwood Corporation, owners of the Palace. But healthcare and other benefits the workers do have, as opposed to the takeaways being proposed by management, enable many of these families to avoid being forced to move to far-flung suburbs in search of cheaper housing. Transportation advocates should be singing the praises of such a green workforce.

Tourism is the largest industry in San Francisco, and Local 2 is the largest union, with 9,000 members in the City. Tourism may be a weird industry in many ways, but it does have some environmental advantages. Hotels are clustered in transit-rich areas of the City, and they can’t be outsourced to the suburbs. Tourists gain appreciation during their visits for walkability and bikeability. The long lines for the cable car—a form of public transportation—and packs of cyclists with their Blazing Saddles handlebar bags going over the Golden Gate Bridge show the potential for tourists to take this experience of San Francisco back home. Their stay could plant seeds of awareness of livability issues elsewhere in the country.

Tourism is also the rare industry that provides entry-level jobs for people without higher education who may have difficulty with English. The union brings together workers who are otherwise isolated in their individual rooms or floors to clean and offers protection against arbitrary treatment and injury.

The communities that make up the bulk of Local 2 workers—Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Latino, and African American—are underrepresented in transportation groups, even though they are probably the largest users of transit with the lowest likelihood of car ownership. They are natural allies, who go back to their neighborhoods like Excelsior, Chinatown, and Ingleside, where transportation issues are bubbling.

If these workers see transportation advocates on their picket lines, they could be more open to hearing what we say about bike lanes or public plazas or Safe Routes to Schools. During my own work with CC Puede, I’ve run into more neighbors than I can remember who have said, “You look familiar. Oh yeah, I saw you at that hearing testifying in support of the day laborers.” That neighbor is then much more receptive to learning about proposed changes to traffic lanes on Cesar Chavez Street. This kind of mutual interest avoids being opportunistic or manipulative when we embrace another cause simply because it’s the right thing to do, but the fact that we then benefit down the road is one more good reason to reach out in the first place.

In 2004, during the two-month hotel lockout and strike, Critical Mass rode right up the driveway of the Hyatt Embarcadero. Picketers were ecstatic, hotel guests dropped their jaws in disbelief, and management turned purple, as hundreds of cyclists, cheering and ringing their bells, crammed into the dropoff area, snarling the check-in process bigtime. It was a great moment, but then it passed. We need to do more.

The issue of labor, like the issue of transportation, is one that connects with all other issues: housing, healthcare, education, race, etc. It’s time to broaden our perspective and explore how making these connections can deepen our movement. In the early 20th century, the Pullman porters played a crucial role in the birth of the Civil Rights movement. Working in the rare job open to African Americans, the porters traveled throughout the country, bringing back newspapers from the north to spread ideas to the south.

Race and labor intersected with the Pullman porters. We have the opportunity to make transportation and labor intersect by reaching out and supporting the workers of Local 2. What I find inspiring about Local 2 is that it gives unsung workers power and a voice. We enrich ourselves by joining them in respectful solidarity.

Transportation advocates can take immediate steps:

  • Get your buns down to the picket line. It’s amazing how wearing it can be to walk around in a little circle, but if that 45-year-old mother of three can do it all day, you spandex greyhounds should be able to put in a few hours. Wear your helmet and be visible.
  • Spread the word. Many people work in associations or corporations that hold meetings in these hotels. Explain what the negotiations are about and try to get your group to avoid any hotel on a boycott list.
  • Speak up in your own advocacy organization and ask the group to take a position, making the environmental connections of supporting a transit-dependent workforce.
  • Do the usual stuff we always do for transportation issues: Write letters to the editor, hound the politicians, etc. You know the drill.

Fran Taylor is a founding member of CC Puede, a community organization in the Mission.