They clean rooms, wash sheets, cook meals and carry luggage for weary travelers the world over. They toil in an industry that has taken advantage of its largely immigrant workforce and kept many of them below the poverty line.
But now they are leading a new wave of militancy and solidarity that could help breathe life back into the labor movement in the U.S.
Hotel workers across the country are rising up. As they face pitched contract battles and bitter struggles for union recognition throughout the industry, hotel cooks, guest room attendants, bell staff and laundry workers have been mobilizing together under the banner “Hotel Workers Rising,” a campaign launched in 2006 by UNITE HERE, which represents over 300,000 union hotel workers in the U.S. and Canada.
With profit margins that were shrunk by the ongoing economic crisis now largely recovered, workers in the hospitality industry have been escalating their struggle in a number of cities, demanding their share of revenue gains which the industry expects will continue to climb eight percent per year between now and 2014.
Last week, over 400 hotel workers and supporters assembled in downtown Washington, DC to demand a fair contract as area hotels – including Hilton, Marriott, Hyatt, Starwood and others – attempt to push through concessionary contracts despite having restored their pre-recession levels of profit. The action was organized by UNITE HERE Local 25 which represents over 4,500 hotel workers who have been in contract negotiations since August.
Demonstrators marched to three nearby hotels during the thick of rush hour traffic. Local 25’s Bradley Van Waus described the situation faced by the workers. “Despite returning to their pre-recession profitability and occupancy levels, hotel management is insisting that workers accept a recessionary contract. Management has made several contract proposals that would trigger increases in workload to staff levels already stretched thin,” he said.
The proposals that management is trying to implement will add no additional contributions to workers’ pensions and offers a first-year wage increase of less than one percent – which covers less than the latest Metrorail fare increase. On top of these concessions, Marriott in particular is looking for a free hand to outsource to temporary low-wage labor.
Local 25’s latest action is meant to turn up the heat before a temporary extension of the contract expires on March 15, 2011.
“D.C. hotel workers provide excellent guest services for some of the richest and most powerful people in the world yet many of my co-workers work two or three jobs to make ends meet,” Elia Velasquez, a Marriott housekeeper said in a press release.
Explaining why so many workers felt compelled to protest last week, Van Waus described the increased workload over the passed few years and the sacrifices that workers have already made to help their employers through the economic downturn.
“The D.C. hospitality industry has fared far better than the industry in other cities,” said Van Waus. “As the economy rebounds, our members are asking to share in the success of the hotels. The hotels are essentially asking our members to accept a contract that locks them into a recession while their employers increase profits.”
The hotel workers’ fight in D.C. is part of a larger campaign as workers across the industry nationwide face a brutal offensive by industry leaders looking to expand profits by keeping labor costs down.
The efforts of hotel chains throughout North America to stall negotiations and implement grueling workloads have been met with rolling strikes, boycotts and other pressure tactics. In the past month, over 3,000 workers struck hotels in San Francisco, Honolulu and Chicago.
These workers have been at the forefront of a new wave of worker militancy as bolder actions not seen in decades are being taken. In June alone, up to a thousand hotel workers and their supporters across the country were arrested in coordinated civil disobedience actions.
Similarly, a rising number of wildcat strikes by non-union hotel workers have been taking place, a trend that is especially remarkable as workers in general have been more reluctant to stand up to employers taking advantage of the economic hard times. One particularly successful wildcat strike by workers at an Embassy Suites in Irvine, California this summer resulted in some immediate improvements in their working conditions.
Workers have also enlisted the support of the broader labor community through boycott campaigns that have been ongoing in various cities and at various hotels since the campaign’s inception. One boycott at Chicago’s Congress Hotel coincides with what has become the longest hotel strike in U.S. history, which began back in 2003. There are currently 15 active boycotts at Hyatt hotels in eights cities. Another series of boycotts is active at four hotels operated by Columbia Sussex in Maryland, Virginia, Alaska and California.
Meanwhile, many hotel workers are struggling to demand their employers respect their right to unionize. Non-union workers at hotels around the country often face employer intimidation, surveillance and interference in organizing drives, including the termination of union supporters.
The use of boycotts has also been part of workers’ efforts against hostile employers who obstruct worker organizing, or refuse to recognize and negotiate with unions that have already been voted in. Workers fighting for union representation at properties operated by the anti-worker HEI Hotels and Resorts, which includes several hotels in California and Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC, have launched boycotts against their employer.
The boycotts have in many cases proven effective in striking at critical pressure points where in some cities large conventions and events have been cancelled or moved.
Nationally, the union has focused especially on Hyatt, where – according to a 2010 study of worker injuries at 50 hotels published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine – workers face the highest rate of injury. The report describes conditions in which workers have to lift mattresses weighing over 100 pounds, bend down to clean floors and make beds, and push heavy carts through carpeted hallways.
The heavier workloads that would be imposed at D.C.-area hotels if management gets its way reflect conditions that have increasingly made hotels among the most unsafe working environments in the service sector. A significant majority of housekeepers in particular – some of whom are required to clean as many as 30 rooms in a single 8-hour shift – report that they often suffer from work-related pain.
Of course, these backbreaking working conditions affect a disproportionate number of immigrants and women of color who comprise the vast majority of hotel room attendants. The overall rate of injury for hotel workers is 25 percent higher than all service workers.
On November 9, UNITE HERE filed injury complaints with OSHA on behalf of workers at 12 Hyatt properties in eight different cities.
UNITE HERE is now shifting its focus from Hyatt to target Hilton properties, hoping that it can exert pressure and set bargaining standards that would be followed by other hotels. The profits of Hilton’s owner, the Blackstone private equity group, jumped 23 percent in the third-quarter while the hotel chain is trying to implement what workers call the “dirty rooms” program, requiring housekeepers to clean 20 rooms a day instead of 14 – a policy that would lead to more lay-offs. Of course, the top echelons are spared from the consequences of cost cutting: the Wall Street Journal reported a 12 percent pay increase this year for Blackstone’s executive team.
But hotel workers have another principled strategy at their disposal: solidarity with other social justice movements. With a coalition that harkens back to the days of Harvey Milk, hotel workers have forged an alliance with the LGBT community called “Sleep With The Right People.” While UNITE HERE has devoted resources to defeat anti-gay laws like Proposition 8 in California, the union has reached out to members of the LGBT community, asking for support in honoring picket lines and respecting boycotts.
UNITE HERE has focused in particular on Hyatt, calling the company both anti-worker and anti-gay. One of the company’s partners and owner of the Grand Hyatt n San Diego, Doug Manchester, contributed $125,00 toward the bigoted Prop 8 campaign. Both the union and the LGBT community maintain a joint boycott against Manchester’s hotel.
Reaching out to different groups is something UNITE HERE is used to as it represents a highly diverse workforce. This could be seen at the Local 25 rally in D.C. where signs that said “Rights, Progress, Power” and “Hands off our contract” appeared in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, French and Amharic.
Laticha Romeo, a housekeeper at the Madison Hotel in D.C., told the crowd, “I’m speaking for all the hotels across the map. I feel the same pain as you. We’re all in this together.”
What happens with Local 25 workers in the nation’s capital represents another link in the chain of rising worker militancy at hotels from coast to coast. On the other side of the Potomac, owners of the Sheraton Crystal City have been waging a fierce campaign of intimidation against workers trying to form a union. While a boycott remains in effect, workers have organized several pickets and rallies in Crystal City demanding that the owner, HEI, respect the workers’ right to organize.
And as for the other unionized hotels in D.C., Local 25 cannot strike or picket in front of hotels while the current contract remains in effect. But when that contract expires in March, such actions are on the table and will be used if necessary.
“We wouldn’t rule out strikes or pickets if management continues to come to the table with an offer that locks our members into recession era standards,” Van Waus said. “I think that our members are united and committed to taking whatever measures that they see fit to ensure that their work is valued.”
In the same city that Local 25 members are fighting for dignity at work, policies of economic austerity are being crafted by both political parties in the interests of Wall Street and the bosses who have brought working people to their knees.
But perhaps this time, at the hotels, it will be the other way around.
BRIAN TIERNEY is a freelance labor journalist.