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.

  • Ty

    ANSWER supporting the Local 2 picket line
    http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2009/09/25/18623310.php

  • SFResident

    ANSWER can vie for the title of “most irrelevant political organization ever constituted.” Seriously, they’re the kind of political org. that exists as a vehicle for its members to feel self-righteous, not as a vehicle to organize for political change.

    That being said, this post is spot-on. It’s important to remember that building a better transit infrastructure is as much a question of social justice as it is of environmental justice and we should be working on fostering our natural alliances with both the progressive labor and social activist communities.

  • Bien-pensant filler

    Why exactly am I reading this here?

  • @Bien, you’re reading this here because transit advocates (like yourself it seems) are still asking that very question, and not getting the need to connect transportation issues to class and justice issues.

    My guess would be that the median income of bike coalition members is pretty damn high–and while that is fine, we need to think about how to bridge the gap between well-off and middle-class advocates who have the time and energy to spend time speaking up with the working-class people in SF and its environs who use transit and who may not be reached by yuppie-based bike and pedestrian outreach via the normal circuits like bike culture events, etc. ((again, not that there is anything wrong with the yuppie-based stuff. i’m that guy too)).

  • rzu

    Great post, Fran. Thanks for making the connection between labor and transit – I hope folks heed the call.

  • great post. i totally support this call to action. hopefully i can do my part!

  • Joel Ramos

    Sooooooo soooooo glad to see this post! Now I can share it with my Labor friends and help them better understand the need for better transit for their members!!! Thanks!

  • zsolt

    A little too political for me, I generally will not endorse anything or anyone I don’t know much about just to build an alliance. I think hotel workers, like anybody else, should be treated with respect of course, and I welcome anyone who wants to improve public transit — but issues often are complex and the article didn’t contribute to my understanding of what the strike is really about. Generally when it comes down to a picket line, both parties usually revert to one-liner attacks and it’s even more difficult to discern the issues at that point. So don’t count me in just yet.

    I will also note that some of the largest transportation issues that are “bubbling” in the districts the article talks about actually has to do with the very people taking transit, and not some faceless bourgeoisie exploiting them. For example most people I see in Ingleside board in the back, often opening the door for each other or if all else fails, pushing the door in and clearly try to avoid paying the fare. Fare jumping is in fact one of the largest Muni issues “bubbling” in these districts so I’m not sure I agree with the generalizing statement that the workers taking Muni from/to these districts are natural allies in improving transit. Just because they ride the bus does not mean they care about it, or that they would be interested in improving conditions for bikers.

  • patrick

    I find this argument unconvincing. While I see a connection with labor and transportation, that connection would exist with or without the union. The strike is about a small parochial matter, while transportation is a societal issue that goes beyond all boundaries. Plus, the strike is about who pays for health-care and has nothing to do with transportation. If they were striking for transportation benefits then it might make some sense for those interested in transportation issues.

    While I understand the issue of health-care is important to those striking, the bigger issue is health-care reform. Without it, their cause is ultimately doomed as no company will be providing health-care after costs continue to skyrocket. With proper health-care reform, their cause is irrelevant as everybody will be covered with decent affordable health-care.

  • This is an example of “one-way” solidarity. We as readers of streetsblog are stereotyped by the author (btw, “Get your buns down there” what kind of writing is that?) and of course we are expected to “support the hotel workers” and yet, when the MTA budget fight was going on, labor was nowhere to be found, and I didn’t see many ‘hotel workers’ fight the MTA budget.

    Plus, as patrick points out, this is a strike about health care benefits. News flash – pretty much any labor strike at this point is about “benefits” because our health care system is hopelessly broken. The BART strike was in part about this issue, too, as is pretty much any labor dispute. That’s part of a bigger issue, one where perhaps we should join our labor friends in lobbying for a better health care plan, and perhaps tossing out a few elected officials who think the status quo is OK. But that is an issue separate from transit advocacy.

    PS: The idea that an employer should be the prime provider of health care “benefits” is an antiquated notion left over from WW2 and attempts to bust wage controls b/c of the war.

  • EL

    Since much of this “article” is about establishing political unions, I suggest not being overly supportive of any union who chooses to strike in a time when so many are unemployed. Does anyone recall the lack of public support over the recent BART strike?

  • the greasybear

    Let me see if I understand this argument for our actively joining the hotel workers’ strike: on its own merits, the strike is socially just; also, if only livable streets activists picket the hotels, then we will likely win over new converts to our completely unrelated and relatively esoteric cause.

    I’ll set aside the health care and labor/management social justice arguments, because these are but two of the many contemporary American sociopolitical issues I intentionally set aside when I visit Streetsblog. I’m married to a hotel worker. I’m on the strikers’ side. But I don’t come here to read about that.

    So we’re left with the claim we can win over new converts to livable streets activism if only we join the hotel union picket line. Supporting that claim, we’re given anecdote, political theory and a veneer of sunny optimism–none of which are sufficient. Sure it is *possible* our mere presence on the picket line will compel hotel workers battling a $300/month takeaway to suddenly push for new car-free plazas, cycle tracks, street trees, ciclovias and road diets. But then again, it might not. The author fails to show how her hoped-for outcome is any more likely than the status quo.

    I would greatly prefer Streetsblog not wade into issues unrelated to livable streets. And if we must go there, at least provide a compelling argument–it’s not much to ask.

  • Gary

    Dear Ms. Taylor.

    Excellent post. As a cyclist and healthcare worker, I was shocked to hear my colleagues complain when the city painted new bike lanes on the boulevard outside our hospital. They seemed to only see how the street paint might interfere with the car commute. I talked to some, about how — once they got used to the new traffic — safer and happier cyclists might mean the neighborhood’s better tolerance of the ambulances and our hospital’s presence and expansion in the community. Your idea that we must continue to build solidarity is right on. Thank you.

  • Mary Magee

    Nowhere did I read that Ms. Taylor expects that striking hotel workers would “suddenly” start advocating for transit and ecotransit friendly initiatives if shown solidarity by cyclists. Social change does not work in that characteristically U.S. instant gratification way. Social change comes from making a longterm investment in educating one another on each other’s issues, learning how they intersect,and supporting one another with those intersections in mind. It was precisely years and years of collaborative work, education, acts of solidarity and “connecting the dots” that resulted in a very diverse and oft-divided country electing Barack Obama. It’s worth the investment.

    A parochial issue? The same workers who depend on public transportation day and in unsafe night are struggling with an employer who is gouging them for healthcare coverage. A parochial issue? I’d say a national issue. As are transit issues as well.

    Can we have a little class analysis here, even though it’s uncomfortable to think about these things and is not as straightforward as advocating for the bike lanes and other changes that are so important as well?

    Thank you Ms. Taylor for your thoughtful blog.

  • Sasha Greyhound

    So true! There is such class apartheid that many cyclists are unaware of the community and their unions. Fight corporate greed: Ride a bike to a UNITE HERE demonstration!

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