A strike by Hilton San Diego Bayfront workers came to a rapid end late Wednesday, hours after it had begun and just before the first full day of Comic-Con was to get underway on Thursday.
Unite Here Local 30, which represents the convention hotel’s workers, confirmed that it instructed workers to cease picketing after the Hilton hotel presented the union with what it regarded as a fair proposal. Unite Here said it would not release details of the agreement until the workers have an opportunity to vote on the new agreement.
“This tentative agreement addresses the many issues our hotel workers are experiencing in this tough economic environment,” Brigette Browning, president of Unite Here Local 30, said in a statement. “The economy cannot truly recover from the pandemic by leaving behind residents who work in the hospitality industry, and now these hardworking San Diegans have a fighting chance to succeed.
“We did not want to strike during this important week for San Diego tourism, but it’s clear this is what it took to get the wages and benefits these workers deserve.”
Rick Bates, director of policy for the union, said he believes that communications between Mayor Todd Gloria and Hilton officials played a role in helping reach a tentative agreement. Browning thanked a number of elected leaders for their support during the labor dispute.
The walkout had started early Wednesday morning after day-long talks stalled Tuesday night when negotiators for both sides were unable to reach an agreement on pay and other work-related issues. The hotel’s 600 unionized employees, who have been without a contract since November, signaled their willingness last Friday to walk off their jobs when they voted overwhelmingly to authorize union leadership to call a strike if no progress was made in negotiations.
Leaders of Unite Here, which represents more than 6,000 hotel, gaming and food service workers throughout the county, said they hit an impasse late Tuesday when Hilton negotiators rejected their latest proposal for a $4-an-hour pay increase over a two-year period.
“We were prepared to go until this morning but they said, ‘We’re done,’ and they left,” Browning said Wednesday morning as workers, dressed in red union T-shirts and holding picket signs, marched nearby at the hotel’s upper and lower entrances.
“No contract, no peace,” they chanted in English and Spanish as union leaders urged them on with megaphones.
Management at the hotel Wednesday morning had declined to comment on the walkout or on how they were planning to staff the sold-out hotel during San Diego’s single largest convention, which draws some 135,000 attendees. Inside the hotel lobby, it appeared to be business as usual, although a sign advised guests that “Bell service is currently unavailable.” And the in-house Starbucks, normally staffed by hotel workers, was closed “due to unforeseen circumstances.”
In an emailed statement from Hilton Wednesday, the hotel said, “We are continuing to welcome guests and have contingency plans in place to ensure operations run as smoothly as possible.” It added, “We are confident that the hotel and the union will reach a fair agreement that is beneficial to both our valued Team Members and to our hotel.”
Browning said she believes that the hotel was staffed by temporary workers and a few employees from the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines, which is not unionized.
The decision to strike, said Unite Here, had hinged on two key issues — pay and the hotel’s current policy of not having housekeepers clean rooms daily, a practice that became commonplace across the industry during the pandemic. The rooms at the Hilton are instead cleaned once guests check out unless they specifically request more frequent cleaning. Unite Here estimates that the change in policy has on average reduced room attendant hours by 30 percent.
“We have been negotiating for months,” Bates had told the Union-Tribune Tuesday night after the decision to strike was made. “We are demanding $4 (hourly) increases (over two years), and the company offered $2.50 and no stay-over cleaning. We can’t allow room attendants to continue suffering in a billion-dollar industry.”
Bates said the Hilton’s last offer of a $2.50-an-hour increase was to be over an 18-month period but it was contingent on the union agreeing to drop its demand for daily housekeeping of rooms unless guests choose to opt out.
The hotel had originally proposed in June an hourly increase of $1.50 over three years but by Tuesday night had changed the contract period to 18 months, Bates said. During talks on Tuesday, the union came down from its initial demand of an extra $7 an hour over two years.
The union represents about 450 full-time employees at the Hilton Bayfront and an additional 150 on-call workers.
While the workers at the convention hotel earn considerably more than the minimum wage, they still struggle to make ends meet in a county where housing costs are especially high. Hourly pay for non-tipped workers at the Hilton — including housekeepers, stewards, cooks and front desk agents — ranges from $19.30 to $20.65.
Imelda Izazaga, 55, has worked at the Hilton Bayfront since 2010, earning $19.65 an hour as a worker in the laundry department. She says she is fortunate to have a husband — who also is employed at the Hilton — to help cover their monthly rent of $2,100 for a three-bedroom apartment that they share with their 33-year-old son.
“Right now it’s too hard for us because the cost of living in California is really high,” she said, taking a break from picketing Wednesday morning. “Your salary is not even enough. One job should be enough. I worry about the strike but we have to sacrifice; if we don’t do this, the company is going to take advantage.”
Jason Orta, a cook at the Hilton for the last 12 years, is no stranger to labor unrest. Nearly 20 years ago he joined fellow grocery workers in a Southern California strike that lasted more than four months.
“It was hard then with young kids,” said Orta who lives in a two-bedroom apartment in La Mesa with his three children, who range in age from 17 to 21. “But we ended up getting what we wanted. Nobody wins in these things but that’s what it seems like it’s always about — health care and money.”
Comic-Con organizers acknowledged Wednesday that the timing of the strike had the potential to make their first full, in-person convention following a two-year hiatus that much more challenging.
“We are very disappointed to learn that an agreement between the Hilton San Diego Bayfront and Unite Here Local 30 could not be reached,” said Comic-Con spokesperson David Glanzer. “It was our sincere hope that negotiations would result in a resolution that would be satisfactory to all stakeholders. We are working with a number of entities on possible contingencies, however, the timing of this matter certainly creates its own challenges.”
Not only is the hotel sold out but its Indigo Ballroom is a venue for several convention panels throughout the pop culture gathering, beginning on Thursday. Glanzer said that Comic-Con staffs the rooms at those area hotels where there are convention panels.
The walkout didn’t seem to affect Comic-Con activity surrounding the Hilton Bayfront Wednesday afternoon. Crews stayed busy erecting an outdoor display for the ABC sitcom “Abbott Elementary” on the northwest end of the hotel property, and across the sidewalk, workers put the finishing touches on a faux-ivy-covered installation for FX Networks.
Some guests who arrived at the hotel Wednesday told the Union-Tribune they experienced no delays checking in and said hotel staff did not forewarn them about any potential disruption of guest services during their stays.
Farhad Mahmoudi, a sales consultant from Encinitas who is staying at the Hilton this weekend, supports the striking workers.
“I think it’s pretty smart of them to be doing that at a time when they’re going to get a lot of exposure and maximum impact,” he said.
Gerry Vogler, who had flown in from Philadelphia earlier in the week to attend the Con and was staying at the hotel for eight nights, was far less sympathetic. For one thing, he learned that he had to request housekeeping service 24 hours in advance if he wanted his room cleaned. It turned out, though, that was a policy already in place irrespective of the strike.
“I feel with the job situation being what it is, if you’re not happy with your job, you find other opportunities,” Vogler said. “And a lot of people spend a lot of money for this convention and plan a year in advance, and to disrupt that to get a better contract is inconsiderate.”
With little progress in negotiations in recent months, Unite Here sought to amp up the pressure on Hilton last week when it held a news conference outside San Diego City Hall. Among those speaking were Gloria, joined by two City Council members, who lent their support to the hotel workers. On Wednesday, a number of elected leaders joined the pickets, including at least three San Diego City Council members, a county supervisor, and the mayor of National City, Alejandra Sotelo-Solis.
The last hotel strike in San Diego was in the fall of 2018 when workers at the Westin San Diego Gaslamp walked off their jobs for 35 days. The strike ended after a new contract was negotiated, giving housekeepers a 40 percent pay raise over four years.