On the eve of Comic-Con, why these San Diego hotel workers are considering a strike

In a strategic move to secure higher pay for workers at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront, their labor union is threatening to strike during next week’s Comic-Con if it can’t reach an agreement with the hotel on a new contract.

With a strike authorization vote looming Friday, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and two City Council members joined a union-led rally Wednesday, urging the hotel ownership to deliver a fair contract for the hundreds of housekeepers, servers, dishwashers and front desk agents staffing the 1,190-room convention hotel.

“These folks are working so hard, the work is back-breaking work,” said Gloria, noting that his mother many years ago cleaned hotel rooms for a living in San Diego. “And let’s not forget where we were just a few years ago when these people were doing essential work.

“We value essential workers and we have to show we value them right now, and the way to do that is to pass a fair contract with good wages and good benefits.”

Hilton declined requests for an interview but emailed a statement saying that the company “maintains a cooperative and productive relationship with UNITE HERE Local 30 and we are confident that we will reach an agreement that is beneficial to our valued Team Members and to our hotel.”

The possibility of a strike occurring during Comic-Con, which is returning next week as an in-person event following a two-year absence, has the potential to be enormously disruptive. The sold-out convention, which draws more than 130,000 attendees, also sells out hotels, not only in downtown but throughout much of the city.

Workers at the Hilton have been without a new union contract since November when their last agreement expired. Negotiations have been infrequent, but are scheduled to resume Monday when union leaders are hoping that Hilton hotel representatives will offer a pay raise well over the 50 cents an hour that was proposed last month.

Like most hotels, the Hilton Bayfront is staffed with largely lower-wage workers who, while earning more than minimum wage, struggle with making ends meet in a county where housing costs are especially high. Hourly pay for non-tipped workers at the Hilton — including housekeepers, stewards and front desk agents — ranges from $19.30 to $20.65.

Unite Here Local 30, the union that represents hotel and hospitality workers, is seeking a $3-an-hour raise per year over two years. It also is pushing back against a proposal by Hilton to increase employees’ monthly cost for parking from $45 to $65. The increase would effectively “obliterate” the pay raise the hotel is offering, said Brigette Browning, who is president of Unite Here and also executive secretary-treasurer of the San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council.

The union represents about 450 full-time employees at the Hilton Bayfront and an additional 150 on-call workers.

“We would love to be able to get a settlement our members deserve but if we don’t, we’re going to strike during Comic-Con,” Browning said in an interview.

In addition to pay issues, Unite Here is pushing to maintain current health benefits without having to raise contributions by the hotel workers. The unionized employees currently pay no more than $50 a month for their health insurance costs, Browning said. To keep that from going up, Unite Here is asking the hotel to increase by 30 cents the $7 an hour it currently pays toward workers’ health insurance premiums, she explained.

Noemi Ponce, a nine- year employee with the Hilton San Diego Bayfront hotel.

Noemi Ponce, who has worked as a housekeeper at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront for nine years, spoke at a union-led rally where she urged the hotel to pay workers a high enough wage so that they do not have to work more than one job.

(Nancee E. Lewis)

Noemi Ponce, a housekeeper at the Hilton hotel for the last nine years, says she has become so financially strapped that last December she left her $1,380-a-month one-bedroom apartment in El Cajon for a garage in Spring Valley that she shares with her 16-year-old brother and 14-year-old cousin. She pays $700 a month while making car payments and supporting her two family members.

While she was able to return to work in June of last year, it was only part-time where she was sometimes working as few as 40 hours a month. She returned to a full-time schedule in March, she said.

“On behalf of my family, I ask the Hilton Bayfront, do you think I should have to live in a garage, do you think my work is worth so little we should have to work multiple jobs just to get by,” said Ponce, 36, speaking at the rally. “The management of Hilton Bayfront San Diego can change all that. Please, please do what’s right.”

San Diego Councilmember Raul Campillo, who chairs the council’s Economic Development and Intergovernmental Relations Committee, said the plea for higher wages for hotel workers comes at a time when tourism is rebounding, along with hotel room rates.

“I’ve seen the economic data,”
he said “Those hotel room rates are going up faster than we thought they would … and people are paying hundreds and hundreds of dollars to stay there. You can’t tell me that we can’t pay our workers better. You can’t tell me that.”

Should the Hilton hotel workers vote in favor of allowing their union leaders to call a strike, Unite Here leadership would make a decision on whether to call a walk-out following the scheduled negotiations Monday and Tuesday.

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.