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Home » Actions, Member Profiles » Member Profile: Don Olson

May 23, 2011

Don Olson — Server — Grand Hyatt San Francisco — 37 years of service

My mother was born the year the Titanic sank.  She went to vocational school to learn telegraphy and then she went to work for Western Union.  She operated this machine called a bug that sends Morse Code dots and dashes.  She’ll be 100 in January.  My father worked for the Post Office.  It was a good job, a union job, with good benefits.  My mom still gets his pension.  I grew up in Minnesota, an only child but with lots of relatives and friends.  I’m the renegade who moved to California.

I went to college to become a high school math teacher, but along the way I started working as a waiter part time.  After college I realized I was having more fun and making more money being a waiter at night than being a teacher during the day.  So I quit teaching, moved to Knoxville and found a job with a new hotel company called Hyatt.  They only had about thirty hotels in the whole country.  I’ve worked for Hyatt ever since.

In 1980, I came up to the Grand Hyatt in San Francisco to take a job as a waiter in the restaurant.  When I moved to California, it was like coming to Oz.  As a gay man, San Francisco was it.  Donna Summer, disco raging, the party was on: it was the most fun time of my life.  But then the AIDS epidemic hit.  I was there before, during, and after.  I lost two partners, three best friends, countless friends, co-workers, acquaintances.  Somehow by the grace of God I escaped.  When you’re in your thirties, you don’t expect to be going to two or three funerals a week. It was like being in a war zone.  People were dropping dead around you on a daily basis.  But we lived through it, and we survived, and we remember all those who are gone and those who are still here.  Local 2 was the first union in the country to have a dedicated HIV/AIDS fund. I appreciate that we have a union that is sensitive to people when they’re in need.

I’ve been very active in the union ever since I got to San Francisco because I’ve seen a lot of abuse. When I worked in Knoxville, we had a bar manager whose girlfriend needed a job.  So the bar manager fired one of the cocktail waitresses and hired his girlfriend.  It was really very blatant.  Without union representation, there was no one to turn to.

I’ve been a shop steward, on the negotiating committee, and on the boycott committee.  I was a lead negotiator in 1989 when we went on strike for a week.  It was a really tough negotiation, particularly mean-spirited.  I remember sitting across the table from John Pritzker, who was the general manager of the Grand at the time.  He’s a member of the family that owns Hyatt.

The big issue in our negotiations is that we want to secure the right to help other Hyatt workers across the United States take on a corporation like Hyatt, wherever they are abusing workers.   We’re fighting for the ability to picket, strike and boycott in support of other Hyatt workers to organize or get contracts. My long term dream is that all Hyatt employees worldwide can stand together.

Photograph Copyright David Bacon

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