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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Jun 21, 2011, 12:35 pm

Strained Hyatt Workers Continue to Push for Fair Negotiations

BY Candice Bernd

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Hyatt workers and interfaith activists picket outside the Hyatt Regency headquarters on South Wacker Drive June 20, 2011.   (Photo by Melena Nicholson)

CHICAGO—How can seven housekeepers keep up with the 2,019 rooms at the Hyatt Regency hotel during their shift? They can’t—that’s why they went on strike. Union cooks, bellmen, dishwashers, housekeepers and other Hyatt workers woke up at 4 a.m. Monday, June 20, to picket outside three Hyatt locations in a one-day strike after more than 20 months of negotiation with the company.

By the afternoon, they were joined on the picket line at the Hyatt headquarters on Wacker Drive by hundreds of religious activists and leaders who were in town as part of the 15th annual Interfaith Worker Justice Conference. Activists sang spiritual hymns, chanted and prayed not only for Hyatt workers, but also for Hyatt management, asking them to see the light.

After months of bargaining, Unite Here Local 1 has won a 3-year contractual agreement with Hilton and Starwood hotel companies this year. While Hyatt has indicated support for a contract that would match some of the settlements of Hilton and Starwood for union employees, the company continues to refuse a fair bargaining process for workers at non-union hotels, remaining the last of the three largest hotel chains to do so. Another sticking point for Hyatt is the subcontracting out of new work.

Workers have kept up the pressure on Hyatt throughout negotiations. Union members staged a one-day strike against Hyatt Regency O’Hare in September, 2010. In May of that year, workers walked off the job after a hotel renovation worsened working conditions.

Sonia Ordonez has worked as a cook at the Hyatt Regency Chicago for five years, two of them without a contract. She said she works 10 days in a row with only one day off, only to turn around and work another 10 days again. Often the only other coworker in the kitchen is moved to cover another area where the hotel is short staffed, making her work load twice as hard, Ordonez told In These Times.

“I have a lot of coworkers in the kitchen who get hurt. They have a lot of pain and injuries from the hard work that they do,” Ordonez said through a translator. “But the company has no compassion for what we go through.”

Ordonez was involved in the civil disobedience action with her union in 2010. “It was a really beautiful experience. It was an experience I had never had before,” she said. “I was so nervous. I thought ‘oh my God I’m going to get arrested’.”

Housekeeper Catalina Almanza has been working at the Hyatt Regency for 28 years. She told In These Times that she works with only six other women on the second shift of the day. “We go through so many rooms and there’s so few of us, that I’m up and down, in the east tower, the west tower, up and down, every day that I work.”

Almanza said that many of her coworkers become injured from the work they do. Some of her fellow housekeepers are in their 60s. She described a close friend who became too sick to work and became depressed.
“She would cry and say ‘why doesn’t the company want me? I’ve worked for so many years for this company so hard,’ and it took her six months to feel better and be able to come back to work,” Almanza said. “She’s back to work, but she’s not completely well.”

Local 1 points to a 2010 study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine to show just how dangerous housekeeping can be. The study found Hyatt housekeepers had the highest rate of injury for housekeepers among five hotel companies and across 50 hotels.

The day workers contracts expired in 2009, Hyatt fired 98 workers from a Boston hotel and replaced them with subcontracted employees to cut costs. The temporary workers were paid minimum wage, had no benefits, and cleaned twice as many rooms. The Boston 100, as they’re now known, has spurred a national boycott of the company, in which religious leaders have played a considerable role.

More than 250 Rabbis signed a pledge to boycott the hotel in support of Hyatt workers in 2009 after the firing of the Boston 100. Hyatt is one of the only hotels to have a kosher kitchen—the owners are Jewish. This year, during the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot on June 7, rabbis, cantors and clergy interviewed Hyatt workers around the nation to produce a traditional text study for Shavuot in honor of Hyatt workers. Rabbi Asher Lopatin wrote the following in the study:

It becomes a “shanda” when the Jewish business is at the forefront of lowering the status of workers, and we, as Jews and Jewish leaders, are responsible for making sure that the Jewish world of business and commerce is one that values being a “mentsch” and treating employees with the decency and standard that society has decided. Yes, they may legally be able to outsource more or refuse to recognize “card checks”, which reflect employees desire to unionize; however, when the other major hotel chains- Starwood and Hilton- give employees these rights and protections, Hyatt should be at the very least on par. Anything below this is not doing “what is good and straight in the eyes of God.”

Candice Bernd is a summer 2011 Web intern for In These Times. She has co-hosted The Rational Radio Report with Jack Bishop on 1360 AM, KMNY, and written for Z magazine, Left Turn magazine and Truth-out.

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