When members of Unite Here Local 610 in Puerto Rico entered into a contract fight with Hilton in June 2009, the life of their union was hanging by a thread.
The new contract that was ratified in February 2010 saved their union. It stopped decades of decline and concession bargaining. It significantly raised the members’ standard of living and greatly increased their power.
In past negotiations, Local 610 members had been forced to swallow significant losses with few, if any, improvements in their conditions. This new contract was an unequivocal victory, and every new contract provision represents an improvement for the members. At a time of severe economic hardship, this $13.5 million deal is objectively much better than agreements being negotiated by other unions. In addition, most of the fundamental contract provisions relating to the rights of union members and the balance of power between the union and management have been rewritten. As a result, the non-economic elements of this contract are superior to almost every other union contract in the hotel industry in North America.
Twenty years ago, Local 610 was strong. The union had over six thousand members. They had the third best union contract for hotel workers in North America (behind only New York and San Francisco). Their wages were higher than those of hotel workers in Washington D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and Hawaii. They had excellent health benefits and a good pension plan. They had excellent working conditions. Management respected them.
About 15 years ago, the leadership of their union bowed to threats from employers and agreed to a permanent two-tier wage system that reduced the minimum wage for all future employees. That turned out to be a fateful and shortsighted mistake that would weaken the union and embolden management for years to come. In each successive contract negotiation, instead of fighting for improvements, the union allowed itself to be bullied by management, agreeing to more cuts in wages and benefits, worse working conditions and weaker contract enforcement rights. While the other local unions for hotel workers advanced, winning better contracts, they retreated. By 2009, their wages, benefits and working conditions were far behind those of most other unionized hotel workers.
Why did this happen? It happened because rank and file members stopped taking responsibility for their union. They stopped participating in their union. They allowed a few "leaders" to make bad decisions that did great damage to their union. They sat by and watched their union become weak.
The members of Local 610 finally woke up in 2006 when a group of unelected officials from their International Union signed shamefully bad sweetheart contracts with Hilton Corporation, giving away some of their most important contract rights, most notably – the guaranteed work week. The names of those officials were Edgar Romney, Pete Demay and Victor Velez. They had been placed in temporary control of Local 610 by Bruce Raynor, who was then the President of their International Union, UNITE HERE. Raynor would later be thrown out of UNITE HERE in disgrace. A movement of hotel workers across the United States and Canada rose up in oppostion to Raynor's policy of of trading away union members' contract rights in return for closer relationships with big corporations like Hilton, which is exactly what he, Romney, Demay, and Velez did in Puerto Rico to the members of Local 610.
So, like hotel workers in other parts of North America, the members of Local 610 also rose up and voted to kick that group out of their local. They decided to make a stand, to stop retreating, and to begin again to move hotel workers in Puerto Rico forward. They began to prepare for the fight with Hilton Corporation that has led to this remarkable contract victory.
First, they asked their International Union for help. UNITE HERE responded quickly by pledging crucially important financial support – in the amount of $300 per week per member (more than $400,000 per week) – if they needed to go on strike to win a fair contract. Then, they asked their sister union, Local 6 of New York for help. Local 6 sent, at its own expense, 29 trained organizers, member volunteers, negotiators, lawyers, and other staff, many of whom would be there working long hours with them for many months. Local 6 assigned still more of its staff to work for them from New York and obtained additional assistance from Local 25 in Washington D.C. This key foundation of support positioned them to be able to challenge Hilton.
Hilton Corporation had no intention of giving Local 610 members a fair contract without a fight. In May 2009, the company tried illegally to get rid of their union and replace it with a new company union calling itself "Workers United." That inappropriately named organization was spawned by Bruce Raynor with the help of Edgar Romney, Pete Demay, and Victor Velez – the same discredited characters who had been thrown out of UNITE HERE for betraying hotel workers. Raynor persuaded Hilton to flagrantly violate federal labor law and officially recognize "Workers United" as their collective bargaining representative, even though the workers never voted for or legally authorized that organization.
For months, Hilton knowingly broke the law by assisting Raynor's company union, and even illegally turned over confidential employee information (including members' home addresses, and telephone numbers) to it. In return, Raynor's so-called "Workers United" continued to try to assist Hilton against the union throughout the entire contract fight. But the company union was only one of the tools used by Hilton.
At great expense, Hilton brought in a notorious anti-union consultant from Los Angeles, Lupe Cruz, to hold mandatory anti-union meetings to intimidate and confuse employees. The members ran him out of town. Local management also fought Local 610 members tooth and nail. For months, they threatened and harassed workers and violated the law.
The El San Juan Food and Beverage Director even went berserk and physically assaulted a union business agent because he was arguing in defense of a waitress in a grievance meeting. As in the past, they tried everything to divide and demoralize members. But this time, they failed.
Members got organized. They started by building a representative negotiating committee of rank and file leaders chosen democratically by the membership. This committee grew to 96 dedicated members from all four shops. It took on the responsibility of educating, unifying and mobilizing members; drafting and approving their contract proposals; and making the key decisions in negotiations. The Negotiating Committee did its job well and the membership responded.
More than two-thirds of the 1,400 members in the four Hilton shops attended the negotiations and hundreds came to most sessions. The negotiations were like nothing they had ever seen before. Their negotiators were tough and smart.
Individual members boldly stood and spoke and held management accountable for its past injustices. Confronted with the truth, the managers squirmed. And the members became more confident. And they shouted: "Se acabó el abuso!" And they even sang. They felt their growing unity. They sensed that justice was finally within their reach.
The old contract expired in August, so they negotiated through the slow months. Then, as January approached, they readied themselves to go on strike. The contract fight reached its climax during two critical weeks before Christmas.
On December 17, the union held a massive rally in front of the Condado Plaza and then they marched down Ashford Avenue to the Radisson Ambassador Plaza (where their brothers and sisters were also fighting for a fair contract). Turnout was so large the police closed off the avenue.
Astonished tourists and customers came out of the crowded shops and restaurants that evening to watch the parade. Songs and chants echoed through the Condado, amplified via the powerful sound system of a "tumbacoco" truck. Members carried huge banners announcing "SE ACABO EL ABUSO." They hoisted three 10-foot-tall inflatable rats, each representing a Hilton manager, along the parade route. The next day, they rallied outside the Caribe Hilton. Hundreds of members sang and chanted while hotel guests watched from their windows, and an airplane circled the hotel towing a giant banner announcing the strike website address. Then, on night three, they held a celebratory rally on the beach of the El San Juan Hotel, and they served notice on Hilton that the beautiful beach belonged, not to Hilton, but to the members, and they promised to occupy it, with their families and friends, for the entire duration of any strike.
Three days later, December 22, the members turned out in overwhelming numbers and voted by a 91% majority to authorize the union leadership to call a strike. Management could have no doubt that they were serious and that a devastating strike against all three hotels and the El San Juan Casino was imminent. That same evening, the company made the final concessions needed to reach an agreement.
It is an historic agreement. The union accomplished the goals they set for themselves when they began this fight: improved healthcare benefits, a fair raise, and respect. This small local stood up to one of the largest multinational corporations in the world and won a great victory.
But more than that, they have begun to rebuild their union. In addition to an excellent new contract, this shared struggle has given Local 610 members a new sense of unity and pride, and a new corps of veteran rank-and-file leaders who have been tested under fire. They must not stop moving forward after they ratify this contract.
With the help of their sister unions, Local 6 (New York) and Local 25 (Washington D.C.), they are continuing to build and improve the new Local 610. Soon, a new program will be launched in which Local 610 staff, delegates and rank-and-file leaders will be sent to New York to receive training in the areas of contract enforcement, internal and external organizing, and local union administration. They must continue to organize and educate their members and bring more of them into the active life of their union. They must reach out to the non-union workers of Puerto Rico and help them win the rights and dignity of a union contract. They must also heal the wounds of this fight, and begin to build a new relationship with Hilton management – one based on mutual respect.