Striking hotel workers march to City Hall, testify at emotionally charged hearing

Hundreds of striking hotel workers marched to City Hall Friday to testify about increasingly difficult working conditions at Marriott hotels across The City.

Since Oct. 4, more than 2,500 workers across seven Marriott locations in San Francisco joined a national strike that has touched eight cities, including Oakland and San Jose.

At a special Board of Supervisors hearing Friday, workers spoke of their inability to afford San Francisco’s high rents and cost of living on the incomes earned at the hotels, addressing city leaders.

“I’m living on the razor’s edge one day to the next,” said Javier, a server at the St. Francis Westin Hotel who said he is a third generation San Franciscan. “I live in an SRO. I pay a lot of money for no kitchen, no bathroom and bed bug season, knowing that being built right next to me are these nice buildings that I am not even close to affording.”

The workers, represented by the union UNITE HERE Local 2, are demanding increased job security, workplace safety protections, higher wages and for the company to address issues over workers’ pensions and healthcare benefits.

Striking Marriott hotel workers chant as they march to City Hall to attend a special meeting of the Board of Supervisors on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Their demands come as Marriott is reporting record profits — the company is valued at $49 billion and employs more people worldwide than Facebook, Google and Salesforce combined.

The average full-time Marriott worker earns $44,000 year, while CEO compensation last year equaled some $13 million, said UNITE HERE President Anand Singh.

Singh said on Friday that a meeting with the company earlier this week yielded “significant progress” on the union’s demands for job security in a changing industry that is increasingly technology-driven, but the two sides are still “far apart” on issues such as healthcare.

A month into the strike, Singh said that the union still has not secured a commitment from Marriott to maintain workers’ health care benefits “over the next several years.”

Evalina Cravens, who has worked as a room attendant at the Westin St. Francis since 2014, said that she is subjected to stressful and unsafe working conditions daily and decided to join the strike to affect change.

“It’s not a safe environment to work in. Our equipment is bad, we have to rush, we only have seven hours to clean 14 rooms,” said Cravens.

Guests checking in under the hotel’s Green Choice program opt to receive loyalty points in exchange for decreased room service — but the program comes at the expense of room attendants’ work hours and workloads.

“We can’t go in and clean the room for three days. The magnitude of not cleaning a room for several days, it’s like leaving dishes in the sink — there’s buildup,” said Cravens. “Then Marriott puts a rush on it. You have to make sure your I’s and T’s are crossed, or they’ll write you up.”

Supervisor Hillary Ronen called for Friday’s hearing after growing increasingly concerned over the duration of the strike, which is now entering its second month.

Ronen said that she was “incredibly disappointed and insulted” that Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson rejected her invitation to attend the hearing earlier this week.

“We generate some of the highest room rates in the country and we are a market every hotel company wants to be in,” said Ronen. “Our city isn’t just another profit center on a spreadsheet somewhere — this is a place where real people struggle to build a future, grow a family and grow old together, which is getting harder. From what I hear, that is the reality that led to this hearing today.”

Striking Marriott hotel workers with UNITE HERE Local 2 hold their hands up in place of applause during a special meeting of the Board of Supervisors at City Hall on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Shortly after the hearing, The Examiner learned that UNITE HERE Local 2850, the unit representing Oakland, had reached a tentative agreement for a contract with Marriott.

Union spokesperson Rachel Gumpert said in a text message that “We are much further apart in SF than Oakland was but this shows that Marriott can make reasonable movements toward one job being enough.”

It is unclear whether Friday’s hearing could result in legislative action on the part of the supervisors.

Steve Krespel, a bartender with the Marriott Union Square, said that he hoped the hearing would pressure the hotel’s leadership to “sign the contract and bring us back off the streets and put us back to work.”

Krespel said that he is currently living off of union dues, which average less than $1,500 per month — hardly enough to live in San Francisco.

“The strike affects everybody so differently — I feel encouraged, I feel that this is what democracy looks like,” said Krespel. “But it is a sacrifice. Most everyone here has families, homes, mortgages, kids they want to put through school, retirements they are waiting for. We are not making that money that we were.”

Singh said that the ongoing strike could set industry standards and define what responsibilities large corporations operating in cities like San Francisco have toward working-class residents.

“It’s not just about their bottom lines,” said Singh. “What we achieve here in San Francisco will set a standard for the other hotel workers in this city.”

Ronen agreed.

“You can be a leader,” said Ronen, addressing Marriott. “You can show other companies what it means to actually respect the people that make you a profitable company and give people hope that working is actually worth it again.”

Marriott and the union are expected to meet on Nov. 12 to continue the negotiations.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Story has been updated to reflect that a tentative agreement was reached in Oakland.

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