Table of Contents


Introduction

Working conditions before the first contract

The strike of 1912

The 1937 organizing committee

The Hotel Trades Council signs the first contract

The Story of the First Contract


The strike of 1912

The 1934 Strike was another strike that failed – but the lessons learned from the failures were put to good use a few years later and our union was born.

In 1912 the first general strike of New York City hotel and restaurant workers inaugurated a quarter-century of hard-fought but ill-fated struggles. At noon on May 7th of that year a whistle blew in the dining room of the Belmont Hotel, on 42nd Street across from Grand Central, and 150 waiters, quickly followed by busboys, cooks, dishwashers and even bellman and maids, walked out to the street. Before being roughly dispersed or jailed by police, they waved placards and shouted slogans giving their demands:

The strike spread to the Plaza, the old Waldorf (at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street), the Knickerbocker, such restaurants as Delmonico's and Sherry's, and many other hotels and restaurants. Within two weeks some 18,000 hotel and restaurant workers were on strike.

On May 19th a mass meeting was held in the Amsterdam Opera House, on 44th Street near Ninth Avenue, down the block from present Local 6 headquarters.

"Every seat was taken and behind the last row of benches the audience stood five rows deep," the New York World reported. The Evening Mail described those present as "waiters, cooks, pantrymen, chambermaids and all the rest."

 

The man who put down his shovel

One of those who joined the 1912 strike was Leonardi Santo, an Italian immigrant whose job was to shovel coal at the fashionable Elks' Club. (In those years hotels and clubs were heated by coal-burning furnaces).

Santo told a reporter that he worked 12 hours a day and was paid $30 a month. He paid $11 a month in rent, leaving him just $19 to pay all the other bills of a family of six.

He walked out with the others, he said, because he would rather see his children put out of their misery at once than live on half starving.

But an angry hotel owner offered another description in a letter to a friend that came into the hands of a friend of the strikers. The strikers are a "contemptible, rascally bunch," he wrote. "I doubt if there are 50 honest men among them. They are a lot of low-lived thieves."

 

Joseph Elster, business agent of the newly-formed International Hotel Workers Union, reflected the growth of awareness that the waiters could not win better conditions by themselves. "This is not the fight of the waiters alone," he told the rally. "It is also the fight of the cooks, the chambermaids and every man or woman employed in or about a hotel."

But the need – the desperate need – of hotel workers for a new deal was not enough. The police cracked down hard on pickets and demonstrators, and the managements were successful in recruiting scabs from the many jobless. A few hotels, like the Plaza, granted some of the strikers' demands, but most fought with all their resources to keep things as they were. The union was thinly organized and poorly led and without funds. It tried to enlist all crafts in the struggle but with little success. The strikers grew discouraged and drifted back to work, and late in June the last holdouts voted to call off the strike.

The most militant of the strikers were blacklisted and driven from the industry. Hotel workers struck again in 1918, in 1929 and in 1934. The particulars were different but the story was essentially the same as in 1912. The employers had the power of wealth and all the forces of the law on their side. The striking unions were poorly organized, often ineptly led and broke. They were by and large organizations of one or two crafts, and the employers again and again were able to play off craft against craft, national group against group.

But in the wake of the defeat of the 1934 strike things began to change.

These were the New Deal years and the climate was relatively favorable to labor. That didn't mean that unions sprang up automatically. They had to be built the hard way, with plenty of struggle and sacrifice. But the employers could no longer be sure of the help of the courts and police.

Then, despite all the earlier defeats and blacklisting, a solid nucleus of hotel workers existed which understood that unionism was the only way for them and believed that the failures of the past could be turned into victory.

 


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