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Commentary :: Labor
A night to remember - on the hotel picket lines in SF
18 Oct 2004
Last night a small group of activists went out and gave support to the striking SF hotel workers. While doing so, they disrupted the hotels and raised spirits of the strikers.
It started off as some 20 people – mainly youth – sitting around at the corner of Union Square in San Francisco, talking, gossiping, and making up picket signs in support of the striking hotel workers in this city. This was the “flying picket” that a few people had organized. Among other things, there was a discussion with the hotel worker who was present and helping to lead the event. He was defending the conservative, timid approach of the Local 2 leadership. But in general, everybody was in a good mood and looking forward to visiting the various hotel picket lines.

Then we crossed the street to join the pickets at the first hotel. We were met by the picket captain. Had he been a cop reading us our rights he could not have been more of a downer. He explained that they were trying to win the sympathy of the guests and so they did not want any trouble, no loud noise, no picketing in front of the hotel doorway, no this, no that. (NOTE: After the first few days of the strike, the union leadership agreed to give up noisemakers. Then to give up all but one bullhorn. At the same time, they put tape down on the sidewalks, marking a box which the pickets were supposed to stay. These were marked so that pickets would not cross in front of driveways or the hotel entrance. Instead, they picket brick walls.)

The hotel worker with us got mad and said in that case he was going home, so we hurriedly agreed to just leave that hotel and go on to the next one. This was the same brother who had been defending the leadership’s approach just a few minutes earlier. Evidently when confronted with the reality and also with an alternative a different side came out. We marched around the corner, passing the side entrance to this same hotel, where the pickets – liberated from their leader – enthusiastically welcomed us as we chanted and raised a ruckus.

Then we went on to the next hotel. The strikers there heard us coming from a block away, as we chanted at the top of our lungs “Local Two, we’re with you!” They visibly perked up as we arrived. We gradually filtered out beyond the leadership-approved boundaries, picketing in front of all the doors, shouting at the scabs and guests and creating havoc. All the strikers there were very happy to see us come and for our noise and energy.

At one point I got to talking to a scab. This guy, who happened to be black, told me that he could sympathize with us, but that he had no choice. He was flown in to SF from Pittsburgh. He hasn’t worked yet this year, has no health care and his daughter needs dental care. “This is my one chance,” he said. I compared it to being broke and seeing my neighbor has left their door open and $100 on the table. “That would be my big opportunity too,” I said. “I know, but I got to do this,” he said.

Interspersed in our conversation, he was going to open the door for the guests of the hotel. Before I left, I told him, “you see those rich bastards that you’re opening the door for?” I said. “Well, if they tried to turn the clock back to the ‘30s and take away your right to vote and go back to lynching in the South, those bastards wouldn’t care in the least. In fact, they’d be in favor of it if it meant a few more dollars in their pockets.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said.

I told him that the only force that would be able to stand up to that was the unions. He didn’t disagree, but this was just words, just ideas in the abstract. After all, what have the unions done to fight for the unemployed in recent years?

Then on to the next hotel, marching down the street chanting and turning heads. Mixed up in our crowd was a couple who were guests at the hotel we’d just been picketing. I got to talking to the protester next to me about all those “rich bastards” staying at the hotel, how they’re the scum of the earth, and things like that. I felt that I could see this couple’s backs stiffen. I know it didn’t stop them from staying there, but at least it made them uncomfortable. Maybe next time they’ll be a little less willing to cross a picket line.

At another hotel I got to talking with a young guy who was standing security for the hotel. I started asking him about his future – something that he really couldn’t answer.

I should explain that these conversations were in the context of a huge racket – chanting “Local 2, we’re with you,” and “What do we want? Contract!” Some of us changed this last to “What do we want? Health care!” We also got a chant going “San Francisco’s a union town! Shut it down! Shut it down!” All the while marching round, getting in the way of the guests entering and leaving, in general making ourselves a nuisance.

Then we went on to another hotel – the fourth one. By this time it was pretty much of a routine. We’d march up to the picket line chanting at the top of our lungs and the pickets at the hotel would hear us coming from a block away and brighten up. Then, when we got there, we’d join the picket and start picketing outside of the box the leadership has put the pickets in. We’d get in front of the entrance and try to make life miserable for the scabs and the hotel guests.

At this hotel, though, the picket captain told us we couldn’t picket outside of the box – in front of the hotel entrance in other words. We got into an argument/discussion with her. “The whole purpose of a strike is to shut down the company. How can we do that if we’re picketing here only?” “Well,” she replied, “this is what my supervisor told me to do, these are my orders.”

“You mean the union officials?” we asked. When this was confirmed, we told her, “they aren’t your supervisors. You’re THEIR supervisors; you’re THEIR boss. You don’t work for them; they work for you. You pay their wages.”

She had to agree, but still stuck to her guns. We talked back and forth for awhile and then dropped the matter. It seemed she’d won, but some of us started to picket outside of the box after awhile. Then more did, and then more. Pretty soon we were all in front of the hotel entrance, harassing the guests and the scabs. A solid line of security formed in front of us. They were almost blocking people from entering themselves. We kept up the noise, all the while also arguing with and haranguing the security guys. “When your kids ask you, ‘Daddy, how come I can’t find a decent job? Daddy, how come you can’t afford to take me to the doctor?’ You’re going to have to tell them, ‘because the bosses took all that away 15 years ago.’ And when your kids ask you what you did about it, you’re going to have to tell them, ‘well, I helped them do it.’ You are destroying your own kids’ future.”

These guys tried to keep a poker face, but you could see that it was getting to one or two of them.

The picket captain was grinning at everything we were doing, and shortly before leaving I went up and told her, “I see you smiling at what we’re doing; I can tell you like it.” She started laughing. Then I told her, “you know what that means. It means that you know we’re right.” She just laughed some more; she knew I was telling her the truth. When we left, she along with the rest of the pickets warmly thanked us.

One important thing that came from tonight’s event was what the pickets saw. They saw that nobody got arrested for picketing outside the box. In fact, the cops ignored us totally. They saw that the sky didn’t fall. I think it was obvious to all of them how much more effective it was.

As someone who has been active in the labor movement for over three decades, sometimes it gets frustrating to see how far we’ve declined and how little struggle there is inside the unions to change things. One thing that tonight’s events showed me was how important the role of the youth is. It was clear that this was what boosted all the pickets. If we project this onto a wider scale, I think it’s fair to say that the young activists have a fundamental role to play in helping to spark off a rebellion within the ranks. Not that we all don’t have to listen to and learn from each other, but the role of these “outsiders” is really crucial.

It is so obvious how the timid, conservative policies of the union leadership are demoralizing the strikers. And the more they five in to the demands of the cops (eg. no more bull horns), the more the cops demand of them. Another thing that came clear was how the self imposed limitations on program – what they are demanding – is weakening the unions. If the unions were fighting for a 30 hour work week with no loss in pay, they’d be able to win over a big chunk of the unemployed. Likewise if they were fighting for free health care for all and a $15 per hour minimum wage. But now, they’re so busy being reasonable.

Also, within the left and among many activists, this union (UNITE/HERE) has a reputation for being different, more radical. This is because the leadership of this union will align itself with various left causes, community groups, etc. In the main, this is due to the fact that its membership has a large non-white and immigrant sector. In other words, they are not that tied in with conservatism. But this strike is showing that under this cloak of left radicalism there is really no difference of any meaning between the UNITE/HERE leadership and that of other unions. It is the same timid tactics. The same limited program that makes the union incapable of appealing to wider layers of workers with any success. The same dependence on the good graces of the Democrats and the employers even.

As I say, a rebellion throughout the ranks of organized labor is a vital necessity. The younger radicals in the anti-war movement can play a vital role in helping this come about.

John Reimann
Expelled member, Carpenters Local 713
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