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Strike by Hilton hotel workers comes to a halt as Comic-Con starts

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 it.

“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 daylong 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.

The Hilton San Diego Bayfront is wrapped with an advertisement for  "American Horror Story."

The Hilton San Diego Bayfront is wrapped with an advertisement for the FX series “American Horror Story” during Comic-Con 2022.

(Gary Robbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Leaders of Unite Here, which represents more than 6,000 hotel, gaming and food service workers throughout San Diego County, said they hit an impasse late Tuesday when Hilton negotiators rejected their 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 had said as workers, dressed in red union T-shirts and holding picket signs, marched nearby at the hotel entrance.

“No contract, no peace,” workers chanted in English and Spanish as union leaders urged them on with megaphones.

Management at the hotel Wednesday morning declined to comment on the walkout or on how they were planning to staff the sold-out hotel during the annual comic book convention, San Diego’s single largest convention, which draws some 135,000 attendees.

In 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 on Wednesday, the hotel said, “We are continuing to welcome guests and have contingency plans in place to ensure operations run as smoothly as possible…. 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 believed that the hotel was being staffed by temporary workers and a few employees from the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines, which is not unionized.

The decision to strike, the union said, hinged on two key issues: pay and the hotel’s policy of not having housekeepers clean rooms daily, a practice that became commonplace in many hotels during the pandemic. The rooms are instead cleaned once guests check out, unless they specifically request more frequent cleaning.

“We have been negotiating for months,” said Rick Bates, director of policy for the union.

Bates said workers were seeking a wage increase of $4 an hour over two years, while the hotel offered a $2.50 raise and no change in the room-cleaning policy, which Unite Here estimates has resulted in 30% fewer hours for housekeepers. “We can’t allow room attendants to continue suffering in a billion-dollar industry,” he said.

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

Although the workers at the 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 and front desk agents — ranges from $19.30 to $20.65.

Just a week ago, Mayor Gloria, joined by two City Council members, spoke at a union rally in support of the hotel workers.

“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,” Gloria said at the gathering.

On Wednesday, a number of elected leaders showed up in support of the strike, including at least three San Diego City Council members and the mayor of National City, Alejandra Sotelo-Solis.

“It’s really important for folks to know they are appreciated, that at the end of the day when they come to work, they’re the ones who are making sure rooms are cleaned, that hot food is being served,” Sotelo-Solis said. “And today being the first day of Comic-Con, the public also needs to know this is happening.”

Comic-Con organizers said 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.

Not only is the hotel sold out, but its Indigo Ballroom is a venue for several convention panels throughout the pop culture gathering. Comic-Con spokesperson David Glanzer said that the event 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 on 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 convention 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.”

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% pay raise over four years.