Viewpoint: UNITE HERE International Should Keep Its Hands Off Local 2’s Pension Fund
I have been a proud member of UNITE HERE Local 2 in San Francisco since 1976, working at several hotel, restaurant, and food service jobs over the years, and now at the Giants’ ballpark. Without Local 2, my life would have been much harder.
But today one of my worst Local 2 nightmares may be coming true. The International Union wants to “merge” Local 2’s pension fund into the massive Las Vegas pension fund.
The Las Vegas local, with more than 60,000 members, is the home base of UNITE HERE President D. Taylor. Both Taylor and former president John Wilhelm are trustees of the Las Vegas pension fund.
The International also wants to merge the Seattle, Sacramento, San Mateo, and San Diego pension funds into the Las Vegas fund. It would be run by a “merged” Board of Trustees, with the International in the commanding position
Local 2 representatives would be only one small voice among many, losing control of the size of our pensions and when we get them. We would also lose control of investment decisions and oversight of the fund.
WHY THIS MATTERS
Local 2 workers have fought hard over the years to improve our pensions. After many strikes and actions, and after sacrificing many potential wage increases to put money into our pension, San Francisco hotel workers are entitled to a pension of $50 per month for every year of work.
We have also sacrificed to put money into our medical fund. We have an outstanding medical plan which includes full coverage for many of our retirees. These are accomplishments that the membership and our local officials can be proud of.
Pensions for Las Vegas workers are far less, according to the pension plan documents posted on the Las Vegas pension website. What incentive would the International and Las Vegas officials have to allow Local 2 workers’ pensions to outshine what they provide?
Local 2 officials have bragged that the merged pension fund would control around $3.8 billion in assets. Our local fund has about $600 million. It does not take a mathematician to see that Local 2 would only be the tail on the dog.
LOCAL OFFICIALS BACK MERGER
Sadly, our Local 2 officials are on board with this plan to merge away local control of our pension fund. Their fealty to the International seems to know no bounds.
Local 2 members have been told repeatedly in recent times that our pension fund is in good shape. Why fix something that isn’t broken?
Local 2 officials have admitted to working on this plan for at least the last six months, but they only revealed it to members on August 26 in a cryptic announcement buried in a “newsletter” on the local’s little-used website. This announcement did not mention Las Vegas, but only unnamed “UNITE HERE western states” pension funds. Getting more information has been a process.
Our Local 2 officials have also been at pains to tell us that the decision will be made solely by the current pension fund trustees, that there will be no vote on the matter by Local 2 members, and that they will not even be consulting our executive board.
Our officials further claim that our pension benefits will be protected by some kind of complicated arrangement involving separate accounting of contributions from the different locals.
But regardless of what arrangement is made at the beginning, a new “merged” Board of Trustees could change the rules. It could even do further mergers with other UNITE HERE pension funds, without any need to consult the membership.
The basic pitch from our officials, as usual, is “Trust us.” But even if we trust them, this merger is forever. Who knows who will be in charge next year, five years from now, or down the road?
Right now if we have a problem with the administration of our pension fund, we know the local trustees and how to get to them. How would we even go about getting a hearing from the trustees from the International and from locals all over the Western states?
Our officials say there are laws that protect our current pension benefits. This is true. But the laws can change. Just think Trump 2024, and be very afraid.
I don’t even know if members of the other affected locals know anything about the proposed merger. I have been personally warned that our officials will be mad at me if I publicize it outside my local. But bringing it into the light of day is the only way to fight it.
IS BIGGER BETTER?
Local 2 has long had a fraught relationship with the International. When I first joined in 1976, UNITE HERE was run by President Edward Hanley, widely believed to be a creature of the Chicago mob. In 1978, Local 2 members voted out Hanley’s guy here in San Francisco, which led in short order to a trusteeship.
Trustee Vincent Sirabella arrived talking about what wonderful things the International could do for us if we handed our pension fund over to them. Fortunately there was too much blowback from the membership about the trusteeship for the pension grab to be executed.
The International has since been purged of its upfront organized crime figures, but the Godfather style of control from the top remains solidly intact.
Earlier this year, under the presumed guidance of the International, Local 2 officials sold us on merging the San Francisco and East Bay Locals into one, telling us that bigger is better—the same line they’re using to try to sell the pension fund merger.
Our officials also told us that the merger of the two locals would be the “first action” in our 2022 hotel contract campaign. Then they turned around and allowed the International to negotiate a nationwide hotel contract deal without any participation by the rank and file.
The new hotel contract supposedly protects housekeeping jobs, but with the unusual provision that any housekeeping staffing grievances that need to go to arbitration must first go through a “pre-arbitration conference” with the International Union President or his representative. You have to wonder what kind of deals might be made at such a “conference.”
The contract does next to nothing to bring back to work the many non-housekeeping hotel workers whose jobs have been eliminated or merged with other classifications in the pandemic and the ongoing economic crisis, which has hit our industry very hard. The severance package that San Francisco hotel workers won in our 2018 strike seems to have gone up in smoke.
As part of the merger of the two locals, an under-the-radar bylaw amendment abolished regular, monthly membership meetings—the only meetings where workers from all the different workplaces and crafts in our union could come together. Instead, the executive board is supposed to set four membership meetings each year at times and places of its choosing.
Meanwhile, Local 2’s executive board continues to meet in secret. We can’t even get the minutes of its meetings in a timely fashion.
THE FUTURE OF OUR UNION
The struggle for democracy within Local 2 and our sister unions around the country has had many ups and downs over the years. Right now, it seems like it is mostly down.
I fear for the future of Local 2, and for the future of hotel, restaurant and food service workers around the country. We are facing multiple problems as a result of the pandemic and the ongoing economic crisis. We don’t need to add self-inflicted wounds.
Giving up local control of our pension funds is a disaster in waiting, and one more step away from the rank and file having a real democratic voice in the functioning of our union. Local 2 officials should reverse course and walk away from this proposed pension fund merger now.
Marc Norton’s website is MarcNortonOnline.wordpress.com. He can be reached at nortonsf[at]protonmail[dot]com. He would be glad to hear from fellow workers in other UNITE HERE locals about what you know about the proposed pension merger and what you want.