THE INTERSECTION: The Tenderloin's union hall

Feb 16, 2016

THE INTERSECTION looks at change in the Bay Area through physical intersections and street corners — where different cultures, desires and histories meet every day.

Season one focuses on Golden Gate Avenue and Leavenworth Street in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood that some feel is changing, while others feel it’s getting worse. What you’ll hear this is season is what producer David Boyer found while spending the better part a year getting to know the people who live and work nearby. This is episode three — listen to more.

Everywhere there are signs of people trying to make ends meet.

There ladies on the corner selling bbq right off the grill. And the line for free food at St. Anthony’s stretches around the corner. With a median income just shy of $25,000, the Tenderloin is by far the poorest neighborhood in a city that has the largest gap between rich and poor in the country.

When it comes to jobs and upward mobility, there are a few signs of hope in the Tenderloin. One of the most prominent is the union hall right here on the corner of Golden Gate and Leavenworth. On installment 2 of THE INTERSECTION, we get to know the members of UNITE HERE: Local 2. The hospitality union represents 12,000 hospitality workers in San Francisco and San Mateo. And it’s been right here on this corner for 40 years.

“This is the home of the American Dream,” says Kim Jackson, a former cocktail waitress who has worked for this union for more than 30 years. “This is the home of people who clean toilets and wash dishes. There is where working people can have enough control over their lives to where they can plan a future for their children."

It is not an understatement to say that Kim has dedicated her life to the cause. She agrees to explain the basics of union organizing and introduce us to some of their members.

“Our members are more than 50 percent women. We are certainly more than 50 percent people of color [and] very very large percentage of immigrants,” says Kim. “Hospitality: It's hard work, it’s dirty work in many cases. And immigrants find this work as kind of the entryway to the economy. And that's certainly certainly true here in San Francisco.”

Hundreds of their members have lived or currently live in the Tenderloin. “Because this is the cheapest place you can live here in San Francisco,” notes Kim. “You need to talk to Josephine,” she adds. “She came out of the Marriott and now she’s on staff but she's lived at the corner of Turk and Taylor for years. She raised her family there.”

Josephine Rivera grew up in a small town in the Philippines named Laguna. After high school, she worked as a room cleaner at the Marriott for 15 years.

“Cleaning rooms. It’s backbreaking. It's really hard,” she admits.

When she started at the Marriott she didn’t know anything about unions and the hotel was not unionized.

“One day somebody talk to me about the union that they were like trying to organize us,” she remembers. "They told us about the room quota: that when you have a union, instead of cleaning seventeen rooms, you’ll be cleaning fourteen rooms. And then on top of that the benefits. Make a big difference.”

Healthcare. Pension. Childcare. Eldercare. There are a lot of union benefits.

“Right now my my daughter, she come here for the last few months to study the S.A.T to make sure that she's going to get a good grade,” adds Josephine. “That will impact her, you know, you know, for the rest of her life…I just have to like save money for college."

“You know, power concedes nothing without a demand,” explains Kim. “It never has and it never will. It's really really hard struggle. But we win.”

And that’s why—for the past seven years—Local 2 members gather week in and week out at Le Meridian, a non-union hotel in the Financial District. After often grueling day shifts at nearby hotels, union room cleaners and servers head directly to the picket line to show and shout their support for the non-union workers inside.

Elana Duran, who works as a food server at Palace Hotel, is one such member.

“I love to be on the picket line,” she admits.

The workers at LeMeridian “they want to be unionized. They’re looking at, ‘Okay if I unionize, I will have job security and health care, that instead of paying $500 or $600 a month, I will pay ten dollars.’ It’s a big help. Especially, right now in San Francisco. Everything is going up—like the prices, food and rent and everything. It's so expensive.”

Elena recently got arrested while picketing. “We block the entrance. So people wouldn’t get it. And it was fun. And I was on the news.”

THE INTERSECTION was made possible with a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission and support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the NEH.