IATSE workers rally for a contract with global event production company Encore outside the Hilton San Diego Bayfront on Dec. 13, 2021. / Photo by Joe Orellana

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Melanie Anger likes to joke that hospitality is in her blood. She wasn’t born to sit at a desk all day. Plus she gets to meet new and interesting visitors downtown.  

But she was making a mere $10 an hour while raising four kids when she first started at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront. She earns $18 an hour now as a hostess but it isn’t enough to support a family even on a full-time schedule.  

These days, she picks up hosting shifts at another restaurant and started her own pop-up picnic business. The single mom works three jobs and is still saving, after decades on her feet, to buy a home.  

Anger was supportive when one of her adult daughters interviewed for a server position in another city. But as a member of Unite HERE Local 30, the hotel and restaurant workers’ union, who sits on a bargaining committee, she also offered a word of caution about getting into the hospitality business: “Only if you can get good pay from one job.”  

Tourism is central to San Diego’s economy and the three sectors that undergird it — food service, accommodations, and arts, entertainment and recreation — made up about 5 percent of the gross regional product before the pandemic, according to a Workforce Partnership analysis. But at the same time, those sectors represent nearly 13 percent of all jobs locally, underscoring the extent to which they are among the lowest paid in San Diego.  

An IATSE rally outside the Manchester Grand Hyatt on Oct. 9, 2021. / Photo by Joe Orellana

The industry was decimated when COVID hit, causing conventions and leisure travel to disappear overnight. But the hotel workers and stagehands who make concerts and other major events possible have come out of the pandemic swinging with complaints about pay, hours and conditions in a very public way. They’re capitalizing on a tight labor market to make new demands and drawing energy from a younger, more diverse base, as well as their allies in elected office.  

The goal is two-fold. The unions want to improve the conditions of people who are the backbone of tourism. They also see this moment of rising inflation and high labor demand as an opportunity to create a more visible and influential workforce, which San Diego has always lacked.  

The larger project, in other words, is not just material — a dispute for greater control of the marketplace. It’s political.  

Late last year, the Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance requiring worker certification at festivals on county land and relaunched a regional film commission to attract movie productions. Both are likely to benefit the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 122, which picked up new members at the city of Vista’s Moonlight Amphitheatre in March.  

After waging public demonstrations, the union also struck an agreement with San Diego State University’s new Snapdragon Stadium — similar to the one with Petco Park — to be a preferred vendor at events, and won agreements with Encore, the global event production company backed by the private equity firm Blackstone.  

Stagehand work, in particular, is physically demanding because it involves heavy equipment. It’s also sporadic because it requires people to bounce around venues owned by different interests, some of which are willing to bus-in laborers from other cities and states to save money. That, in turn, makes stagehand work harder to sustain as a career and harder to advocate for oneself.  

“They grind you until you’re done and pay the guy coming in less” is how Ed Figueroa described it.  

At 49, he’s managed to survive in the entertainment industry longer than most as an audio/visual technician, carpenter and camera operator. The nature of the job makes organizing an easier sell. Unionized workers in leisure and hospitality in the United States earn a median weekly wage that’s $111 higher than their non-unionized counterparts, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. It’s a difference of 17 percent and comes out to nearly $6,000 annually.  

But Encore pushed a lot of the stagehands over the edge by holding mandatory meetings in an attempt to convince them that they’d be better off without union representation.  

Figueroa, who helped organize the stagehands and sat on the bargaining committee, said a lawyer for the company began negotiations by complaining he had to take time away from his golf game. “That was his introduction to the group,” Figueroa recalled. “Basically saying you guys ain’t worth shit.”  

IATSE’s numbers are now stronger than they were pre-pandemic thanks in part to the Encore deal. But it took 20 months to get and resulted in separate agreements with in-house and on-call workers who are subject to different rates. The stagehands didn’t get everything they wanted, but it was something they could build on.  

SEIU members rally in downtown San Diego at Wells Fargo Plaza on Sept. 9, 2021. / Photo by Joe Orellana

As Richard Disbrow, the union’s business representative, explained to me, most stagehands are making around $20 an hour. On a full-time schedule, that’s roughly $40,000 a year. Some are making more, but even that is less than desirable. A family of four in the San Diego metro area, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, needs to earn $110,000 annually to live comfortably.  

Because of its war chest and the city’s policy of giving laid-off hotel workers first shot at open jobs, Unite HERE was able to weather the pandemic and extend its members health care for six months. Pre-pandemic it was one of the fastest growing private sector unions in the country with some 6,000 local members.  

Though its hours and numbers have yet to return, the union has made gains. The Town and Country hotel, for instance, has recognized the right of workers to collectively bargain there and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently sided in favor of Unite HERE in a dispute with Sycuan Resort & Casino.  

Going forward, Unite HERE is trying to establish a new rate across the city of $23 per hour for hotel workers. So far, negotiations with the Hilton Bayfront on a new contract are slow-going. One of the union’s issues is that the hotel has stopped cleaning rooms on a daily basis unless guests request it. That means there’s less work to go around.  

The union said the management has rejected their initial proposal without making a counteroffer.  

“Hilton has always maintained a cooperative and productive relationship with UNITE HERE and we are confident that we will reach an agreement that is beneficial to our valued Team Members and to our hotel,” said Michelle Myers, a senior manager for corporate communications, in an email.  

Both sides are scheduled to sit down again next week. If it doesn’t go well, the hotel workers will be looking for ways to maximize the pressure over the summer as travelers return. That could include going on strike ahead of Comic Con, which attracts tens of thousands of visitors and pumps millions into the local economy. Doing so would elevate a labor dispute into a public policy dispute and ensure the city government’s involvement.  

“It’s the best leverage we’ve got,” said Brigette Browning, head of Unite HERE and the San Diego Labor Council.  

The climate is packaged and sold here just like everything else, supported by an atmosphere of boosterism.  

As the authors of “Under the Perfect Sun” noted when they published their history of San Diego in 2003, city leaders cultivated industries that they deemed cleaner and non-polluting — like academia and later biotech — while limiting the size of factories to keep a less educated populace at bay. Combined with the conservative culture of the military and marketing efforts to attract wealthy Midwestern retirees as residents, officials throughout the 20th Century helped stunt the political influence of labor.  

The flexing of muscle that we’ve seen as of late suggests that blue-collar workers are becoming more conscious of their power after decades on the periphery. The question is whether that energy is sustainable long term and will amount to meaningful change.  

“You could argue it’s a new day,” Jim Miller, a San Diego City College professor and one of the authors of “Under the Perfect Sun,” told me. “There’s a big Democratic majority on the Council and in the mayor’s office. The political landscape is more favorable to labor, but when you think about housing costs and the other struggles of working people, I don’t think the basic inequities have changed all that much.”  

The city still suffers from health and income disparities, particularly in the Black and brown communities that often work in the tourism space. Still, Miller has found encouragement nationwide in the ongoing organizing at Amazon and Starbucks. He cautions against romanticizing those efforts, but they do point to an upsurge among service workers who are often immigrant women and people of color.  

“That’s the face of new labor in America and where the future of a more robust labor lies,” Miller said.  

A lawsuit brought by Evans Hotels in 2019 is the clearest example of how the landscape in San Diego is changing. The company alleged that labor leaders, including Browning, were holding public lease agreements hostage and threatening the financial viability of non-unionized hotels and development projects by raising “sham” environmental and land use concerns.  

Control over the political process was always at the center of the lawsuit, whether it was expressed out loud or not. When the complaint initially dropped, hotelier Bill Evans and others in the city’s business establishment cited it as a potentially game-changing move, something that could blow the roof off labor’s attempts to wield power at City Hall.  

One judge dismissed the case before it got off the ground, ruling that the local unions appeared to be engaging in constitutionally protected speech. After another judge resurrected it last year, a lawyer for Unite HERE said the complaint was intended “to silence Local 30 from participating in the political process.”  

Browning’s ascension as head of the Labor Council last year is also significant, because it suggests that workers in the hotel and restaurant industries are really finding their footing. Browning declined to talk about the Evans case but agreed that part of her task is to create a political force capable of challenging the old guard.  

“I remember when the hotel industry dominated politics,” she told me. “They got whatever they wanted and we were lucky if we could get one Council person to stand up to them.”  

The courts are one obstacle to building out the base. There was a time in the United States when secondary boycotts, for instance, were a popular means of solidarity — a way for workers to put pressure on one business by targeting another — but Congress put a stop to it in the mid-20th Century.  

Until that changes at the federal level, local unions will be somewhat limited in what they can do and how aggressively they can push back. That’s why they’ve taken to the streets and social media for more visibility. And one of their best arguments now coming out of the pandemic is that a strike would rob the city of the tax dollars it gets from out-of-towners.  

But there is, of course, another argument to be made for greater distribution of wealth — a moral and human one.  

Wages often get most of the attention in labor disputes, but heath care is often the biggest concern and the hardest part of negotiations. Going into the wider marketplace can cost families hundreds of dollars a month, so many choose a public option when employers aren’t willing to provide for their employees.  

“They’re on Medi-Cal, which means we as taxpayers are subsidizing billion-dollar companies,” Browning said. “Why would we think that’s OK?”  

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