Hotel workers strike from East Coast to Hawaii

Focus is on low wages, healthcare, and sexual assault

Housekeepers are often isolated from other hotel workers, making them particularly vulnerable to harassment and assault. Issuing“panic buttons” to staff is one demand of the strike. PHOTO: Carlos Ebert. POSTER: HERE Local 1.
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The largest hotel strike in North American history erupted nationwide this year. Poverty wages, staggering workloads, devastating healthcare cuts and no protection from sexual assault topped the grievance list. Strikes targeted luxury hotels, particularly in the notoriously anti-union Marriott chain. Workers at 26 Chicago hotels walked out in early September and were followed by San Francisco, Boston, Honolulu, Maui, Detroit, Oakland, San Jose and San Diego in a few weeks.

Then, on December 7, workers at twenty-four of the biggest hotels in Los Angeles County voted to strike. Some have still not settled. Each walkout powered the next and public support made headlines. Some cities, like Boston, had never seen a hotel strike. There hasn’t been a major hotel strike in most U.S. cities for decades.

Anger over poverty and abuse. “We work for one of the richest employers, but the workers are being left behind,” Courtney Leonard, a striker at Weston Boston Waterfront told Labor Notes. “There are room attendants working into their seventies. It’s heartbreaking. They are here because they need the health insurance. They can’t retire.” Leonard herself drives 100 miles daily to and from work because she can’t afford to live in the city.

The Marriott hotel chain, the strike’s main target, has more workers than Boeing or Microsoft and sets industry standards for wages and benefits. Profits have increased 279 percent since the 2008 recession, reaching $3.2 billion dollars in 2017. Meanwhile their workers, who are overwhelmingly women and largely African Americans or immigrants of color, have received a paltry one percent annual wage increase.

During negotiations the union insisted on up to $25 per hour to match the ballooning cost of living in big cities like Honolulu, San Francisco and Chicago. It demanded year-round health insurance, because staff lose benefits during slow season layoffs. Management responded by offering to raise wages by cutting healthcare benefits.

Workers have faced many other hardships that were addressed at the bargaining table. They fear being replaced by machines. They strain under constant speedup that cost jobs and cause injuries. So, they demanded lower workloads and access to newly created positions as technology eliminates other work. One bartender told the union that he was ready to strike because he wants to keep his job. Already laid off once after eighteen years, he said he knows he is never safe.

Hotel workers also have had zero protections from sexual assault by customers. A survey conducted by UNITE HERE Local 1 in Chicago found that 49 percent of housekeepers reported having had guests answer the door naked or expose themselves. Fifty-eight percent of hotel workers and 77 percent of casino workers surveyed have been sexually harassed by a guest. Staff need protections like those won in Chicago to require that hotels provide “panic buttons” to workers assigned to clean or restock rooms alone. And the Chicago ordinance forbids reprisals against those who report guest assaults. The slogan “hands off / pants on” popularized this demand on strike banners and signs across the country.

But hotels refused to meet any basic demands. Their workers across the country voted to strike.

As the strike began, housekeepers led with the chant “One job should be enough.” They cited examples of workers having to put in full-time shifts at luxury hotels and then night shifts at laundromats to survive.

Labor-community pressure wins public support. Workers spent weeks during negotiations building support. Immigrant women, already seasoned in community and neighborhood organizing, were some of the best spokespeople the strike had. They spoke to other unions and community groups, and organized friends and supporters to rally and picket. Informed and intractable rank and file leaders united a strike force that often spoke three different languages. Freedom Socialist Party’s Nancy Kato organized other activists to join the lines, reporting that “We helped strikers surround the hotels with squads of community and other labor supporters.”

Hotel bosses tried unsuccessfully to recruit scabs. Instead, guests who stayed in the hotels found their rooms weren’t cleaned, the restaurants were closed, and they had to walk through loud picket lines to get inside. Guests on Waikiki were asked to strip their own beds and pick up clean linen and change sheets themselves.

Public pressure was so great that both Honolulu’s mayor and the governor publicly boycotted events at struck hotels and called for management to meet strikers’ demands.

A strike wave that isn’t over. Strikers set new, higher standards for the industry. But hotels settled separately and there haven’t been public comparisons between contracts. What has been verified is that wages have gone up — up to 40 percent in some cases. Workers are now part of the planning for new technology and can apply for new jobs that will come open. And all reports say that emergency alarms will be provided to hospitality workers who must clean or serve alone. The increased workloads caused by hotels letting guests opt out of daily cleaning will now be scheduled for more time, because rooms left for days take longer to clean. This resulted in 20 new positions at one Chicago hotel.

But healthcare benefits, though improved, still have loopholes, and just how much wages have increased is unknown. The disadvantage of having individual hotels negotiate, strike, and settle separately is that some work groups are left on their own. Workers at Chicago’s Cambria Hotel remain on strike after five months. Several hotels in Los Angeles have no contracts. A better approach would be to negotiate a master agreement for all union hotels to maintain solidarity and standards.

One big takeaway. The predicted collapse of labor following the Supreme Court anti-union decision in the Janus case didn’t happen. In fact, the strike wave that began with teachers defying their state governments or school boards has continued with thousands of hotel workers popularizing the demand for decent lives. Surely labor is in a far stronger position than it has been for years.

1985 New York City hotel strike

Recollections of a picket captain

by Stephen Durham

In 1984, after more than a decade of restaurant union activism in California, I moved to New York and took a job waiting tables at the Parker Meridien Hotel, just blocks from Central Park. I joined HERE Local 6, the largest union of the 16,000-member NYC Hotel Trades Council. The majority were women, people of color and immigrants.

Stephen Durham in 2012. PHOTO: Bob Price

Negotiations between the Trades Council and the NYC Hotel Association broke down in June of 1985 when hotel bosses refused to negotiate and engineered a lockout. For the first time in 50 years, hotel workers in NYC went on strike. We were out for 25 days.

Grassroots union leadership quickly emerged, first at the midtown hotels. I was a picket captain and my co-workers and I decided to join rank-and-file led marches that arose once police put up barricades around our picket lines.

These roving marches swelled to thousands and continued throughout the strike. We took the streets of Manhattan and even demonstrated in front of the United Nations. These actions attracted local and international media attention, given that we were overwhelmingly people of color and immigrants.

Hotel owners were emboldened by the anti-labor Reagan era. We were determined to defend our jobs in a NYC industry where worker solidarity over decades had won decent wages and healthcare and retirement benefits.

In the end, a 5-year contract was signed and the bosses’ attack was foiled by our militancy as strikers. Contract concessions included lower wages for new hires and the replacement of wage increases with yearly bonuses. Overall, much more could have been gained if the membership had been more directly involved in negotiations. Still, the strike ended with a victory since we kept our union intact with our determination to fight and win.

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