by Marc Norton
Hotel Frank workers and UNITE HERE Local 2 have driven the wannabe union-busting owners and operators of the hotel – AEW Capital Management and Provenance Hotels – out of San Francisco. The Hotel Frank bosses have tucked their tails between their legs, thrown a big wad of money at the workers, sold the hotel, and fled town. For the last two years, workers at this small, boutique hotel, just a block off Union Square at Geary and Mason, maintained rambunctious, loud and near-daily picket lines, heard and witnessed by many thousands of tourists and residents. Local 2 staged several rallies and mass demonstrations. On September 12, just two days before the hotel shut down, Hotel Frank workers ratified a settlement agreement with AEW and Provenance. The bosses are coughing up close to a million bucks for medical and pension payments they had failed to pay. The hotel also made sizeable severance payments to the workers, including six months of medical coverage going forward, and reinstated three workers who had been unfairly fired, including myself. While we are still far from victory, our solidarity and tenacity paid off.
One of the hotel’s initial demands was that I personally sign a “nondisparagement” agreement prohibiting me from making “any statements, verbally or in writing, about the Employer… their officers, directors, employees or agents, in any manner that is intended to, or does, call into question their morality [sic], conduct, business activity, or business judgment.”
The hotel also wanted me to sign a “confidentiality” agreement, promising to keep quiet about the settlement agreement, including the “nondisparagement” agreement.
When pigs fly.
If I had agreed to such demands, you obviously wouldn’t be reading this. Please read on.
“HOTEL FRANK, WE’RE GOING TO SHUT IT DOWN!
“SAN FRANCISCO’S A UNION TOWN!”
On Friday, September 14, Hotel Frank shut down. The next day the hotel was boarded-up. It is now twelve floors of empty hotel rooms, 153 to be precise.
It is the height of convention season here, and the loss in revenue in September, October and November is easily north of a million bucks, more likely double that.
“San Francisco’s hotels are going gangbusters filling rooms… pushing room and occupancy rates to the highest levels they’ve ever been and making San Francisco the leading hospitality market in the country.” This is from the San Francisco Business Times lead article in its October 5, 2012 issue. The Business Times article goes on to quote the General Manager of the Westin St. Francis, right next door to Hotel Frank, bragging that “The perfect storm is forming, as business and leisure travel are all overlapping… We’re usually super busy at this time of year anyway, but we think this will be a record season.”
Meanwhile, Hotel Frank sits dark and cold. The last time the hotel closed was when it was converted from a residential hotel into a tourist hotel in the early 70s. It remained open even through several subsequent remodels. But now, laid low by corporate greed and arrogance, it is a scene of urban blight right in the heart of Union Square.
“Hotel Frank, we’re going to shut it down!
“We’re going to run these clowns right out of town!”
The new owners are in hiding, apparently afraid to reveal themselves. So far they are known only as 386 Geary Real Estate, LLC. That company is in turn a front for Victory Knight Limited, a Delaware corporation based in the Virgin Islands. The attorney in San Francisco representing the new owners refuses to tell us any more.
The Hotel Frank website cryptically says only, “…the hotel will be closed for an indefinite period of time. We apologize for any inconvenience.” One distraught regular guest recently posted a question on the hotel’s Facebook page: “Your online reservations is not working?”
Hyatt Hotels, also embroiled in a big fight with its workers, and the target of an international boycott by UNITE HERE, produced a leaflet with a picture of Hotel Frank, headlined “CLOSED FOR BUSINESS.” According to the Hyatt’s propaganda piece, “After months of protests… Hotel Frank at Union Square is closing its doors… Local 2 wanted to accomplish something and now everyone will lose. Is this what you want to happen at our hotel?”
This intervention by the multi-billion dollar Hyatt corporation, however laughable, shows that the eyes of the hotel bosses – here in San Francisco, around the country, and indeed around the world – are on that empty shell of a hotel, still called, for the moment, Hotel Frank, and known by many as Hotel Frankenstein.
In the words of a recent Local 2 leaflet, “the Frank is an example to the hotel industry that when a company tries to erode workers’ standard of living in San Francisco, we will fight them to the end.”
AEW and Provenance have kicked the bucket, but the end is not yet in sight at Hotel Frank.
The fight at Hotel Frank takes place in a critical period for Local 2 and UNITE HERE. Hotel contracts in San Francisco and around the country are set to expire in 2013. The war with Hyatt, which began when the last contract cycle started in 2009, goes on. Several other hotels where contracts expired in 2009 have yet to come to terms with the Union.
You can be sure that the hotel bosses are closely watching what happens next at Hotel Frank.
A LITTLE HISTORY
In May 2010, Wells Fargo bank took over Hotel Frank in a foreclosure sale. Workers at the hotel were glad to be done with the former owner, Personality Hotels, a front for the infamous Frank Lembi of CitiApartments and Skyline Realty. The Lembi empire is now nearly defunct, having collapsed under the weight of over-leveraged real estate deals, a lawsuit by City Attorney Dennis Herrera, and widespread organizing by tenant activists.
But Hotel Frank workers quickly learned that we had jumped from the frying pan into the fire.
Wells Fargo brought in Provenance Hotels, an out-of-town management company based in Portland, Oregon. Provenance put out a press release trumpeting “a significant growth phase” with its expansion into San Francisco, claiming that they would “become a significant force in the boutique hotel market… while solidifying itself as a major West Coast player.”
Provenance’s first act as a “major West Coast player” was to dump our Union contract in the trash can, throwing down a challenge to Local 2 and San Francisco’s reputation as a Union town. Provenance stopped paying for medical coverage or pensions. They laid off workers and sped up the rest, especially room cleaners, whose room quota was jacked up to the point where they were forced to skip their breaks. One room cleaner was fired after she was injured on the job in the midst of this speed-up. Several other housekeeping workers have since gone into workers compensation limbo. We all worked an extra half hour every day, for free. They fired one of our leading shop stewards.
In September 2010, we marched into the world headquarters of Wells Fargo – the same downtown Financial District building later targeted repeatedly by our Occupy friends – and announced a boycott of Hotel Frank. Not long after that we set up regular picket lines at the hotel.
A little later Provenance fired me, after twelve years as a bellman at the hotel. Firing me was a big mistake, as it gave me plenty of spare time to help organize the fightback.
In December 2010, Wells Fargo sold the hotel to AEW. Provenance stayed on as the management company, and as a junior partner. The anti-Union agenda remained intact. Provenance apparently convinced AEW that they could continue to take us on, that we would be intimidated into silence, and that Local 2 would never keep up the fight for this one small hotel.
How wrong they were.
For nearly two years, we picketed practically every day, loudly and aggressively. Scab guests were on the receiving end of steady chants of “Shame on You!” (and worse) when they crossed our line. Our protest echoed loud and clear in the lobby of the hotel, separated from us only by glass doors and large picture-glass windows. Nor was there any respite when we showed up at 7am with our 10-watt bullhorns.
We were not only in the face and ears of the scab guests, but were also seen and heard by literally tens of thousands of tourists, nearby residents, business folks, theatre goers, tour busses, and MUNI riders on the 38-Geary. We distributed thousands and thousands of boycott leaflets. We rallied, marched and demonstrated again and again.
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Portland, where Provenance is based, picketed Provenance’s Hotel Lucia several times in solidarity with us. The Seattle Solidarity Network joined in the fight, picketing Provenance’s Hotel Max several times.
The Union launched a “corporate campaign” against AEW. AEW had to deal with delegations of workers and Union representatives around the country – in New York, Boston, and Reno, even Fort Worth, Texas – urging investors to stay away from the company.
I personally engaged AEW Managing Director Marc Davidson in an hour-long confrontation before the Louisiana firefighters’ pension board in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Davidson really didn’t appreciate having a lowly bellman take him on in a one-on-one verbal smack down, in the heartland of Huey Long.
AEW also had to deal with our repeated and very public complaints to the San Francisco Employees’ Retirement System board, which oversees the pension fund for San Francisco city workers. The pension board has a $25 million investment in the AEW real estate fund that bought Hotel Frank.
Online reviews of the hotel on popular tourist websites like TripAdvisor and Yelp became a forum for complaints about noisy pickets and protests. “There’s no need to set up an alarm when you stay here,” said a recent review on Yelp, “as the former [sic] employee’s protest that begins at 7am every morning will take care of waking you up.”
Even the hotel’s own website had to acknowledge our presence: “About those protesters… San Francisco is famous for free speech and a few of our fellow citizens regularly exercise their rights on the street outside out doors… They are noisy most of the time. Chances are, you’ll be out and about… when they are here in the afternoon. When they visit in the morning, perhaps you’ll already be up…”
Now, despite their smug arrogance, these hotel bosses have given up the ghost. It seemed to some that we were waging a David vs. Goliath fight, and that the giant would inevitably crush us. But, in the end, it was AEW and Provenance who couldn’t take the heat, while the brave and plucky workers at Hotel Frank soldiered on.
Incongruously, the Provenance press release from 2010 announcing the “significant growth phase” that would make them a “major player” in San Francisco is still up on their website – at least as of this writing.
THE SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT
Months ago, the hotel informed us that they intended to sell the hotel. They offered no reasons, but the explanation is obvious – we had outlasted them.
AEW and Provenance also knew that if they just closed up shop and skipped town, the Union would follow them to the ends of the earth to seek retribution – particularly the million dollars or so that they had never paid to Hotel Frank workers’ medical and pension funds. And no new owner would want to face off against Local 2 with a million-dollar cloud hanging over their heads.
AEW and Provenance had little choice but to strike a deal.
As a result, Hotel Frank workers and the Union got significant concessions from the hotel, including:
• The hotel is making the medical and pension payments they missed since Provenance took over in May 2010. This figure approaches one million dollars.
• The hotel paid sizeable severance payments to Hotel Frank workers. I prefer to call this partial reparations.
• The hotel will pay for six months of medical coverage for laid-off Hotel Frank workers, through March 2013.
• The hotel has removed all disciplinary notices from every worker’s personnel file.
• Two workers – a front desk clerk and a room cleaner – who had been unfairly fired were reinstated, and made eligible for severance payments and the six months of medical coverage.
• I was reinstated, and got full backpay for the last two years, in accordance with the settlement of a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision that found my firing to be illegal. In essence, the hotel paid me to organize against their profiteering and corporate greed.
THE FIGHT AHEAD
Despite the terms of the settlement agreement, there is no “victory” here. Two years of abuse and exploitation cannot be wiped out with money, no matter how much.
Most importantly, we now face a hard fight with the new owner to put all Hotel Frank workers back to work, and to restore our Union contract.
There is an eerie silence around Union Square right now. No angry workers, no picket lines, no bullhorns. But, unless the new owners of Hotel Frank take heed, this is just the calm before the storm, the eye of the hurricane.
Think on this. When the Hotel Frank fight began in earnest in 2010, Hosni Mubarak was still running Egypt, nobody had ever heard of Occupy Wall Street, and it had been decades since the Giants had won a World Series.
Hotel Frank workers and Local 2 just don’t quit. Solidarity and perseverance are our watchwords.
It is a strange world we live in. They say we live in a democracy – but when did we vote that corporate profiteers like Wells Fargo, AEW and Provenance could treat us like dogs for two years?
When did we vote that workers should be put on the street because some distant and ignorant rich guys want to run away and hide, rather than treat their workers with respect?
If this is a real democracy, would the richest 400 people in the country control $1.7 trillion in wealth, while the rest of us have to fight like hell just to have a decent job? Would those same 400 people have gotten a 13% increase in wealth in the last year, while our pockets keep growing increasingly empty?
Fellow workers and friends – Keep your eyes and ears open, and your powder dry, for the next battle at Geary and Mason.
To our enemies – Beware!
Marc Norton started working as a bellman at Hotel Frank in 1998, when it was called the Maxwell Hotel. Contact Marc at NortonSF@ix.netcom.com, or through his website at http://www.MarcNorton.us. Copyright © 2012 by Marc Norton