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Working In These Times

Monday, Jul 30, 2012, 3:01 pm

Global Hyatt Boycott Heats Up

BY Kari Lydersen

Elvia Bahena was fired after speaking out against Hyatt employment practices in Indianapolis.   (Photo by Armando Pellerano)

On July 23 unions and other labor and community groups called for a global boycott of Hyatt hotels, citing problematic working conditions and employment practices that they say violate labor laws and workers’ rights. The boycott is part of the Hyatt Hurts campaign centered around housekeepers, who suffer high rates of  injury and often make around minimum wage working for contractors with few or no benefits.  Indianapolis hotel cleaner Elvia Bahena, fired last week after speaking out at a community hearing, is just one of the workers who say they’ve been mistreated and retaliated against by Hyatt or its contractors.

Bahena had worked for United Services Co., a company that contracts with Hyatt hotels to provide cleaners. On average, cleaners work on 24 rooms a day, with the contractor of course taking a cut of what Hyatt pays for their services. Hyatt and other Indianapolis hotels and contractors allegedly conspired to protect this system through a “black-listing” arrangement wherein the contract workers would not be directly hired by hotels even when direct-hire jobs became available. UNITE HERE says the blacklisting kept about 1,000 local workers trapped in minimum-wage jobs with no hope of advancement. Bahena made $8 an hour after 11 years in the industry. She previously worked at the Westin and Marriott hotels, where she also worked for a contractor.

On July 16 the Indianapolis city council passed an ordinance outlawing the blacklisting practice. Bahena had spoken in favor of the ordinance at a community hearing where top hotel managers were present, and two weeks later she was fired.

United Services later said Bahena was fired for performance issues and missing work, but UNITE HERE Indianapolis organizer Sarah Lyons says Bahena, 36, had only missed one day of work, when her son was sick, and had never been written up for performance reasons.

“My three kids are all about to go back to school, there are a lot of supplies and uniforms to purchase, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to pay the rent,” Bahena says.

Lyons says United Services has started “backpedaling,” saying Bahena is still on their roster, a sign local pressure around her case is having an effect. Bahena says she would rather work directly for the Hyatt, “for the benefits, to make a little more money and have real raises.”

“The (direct-hire) hotel jobs tend to pay $1 or $2 more an hour – they’re not great jobs, but they do pay a little more at least,” Lyons says.

Hyatt workers and their supporters held demonstrations across the country last week around the boycott announcement. In many cities there have been boycotts and one-day strikes at Hyatts for several years, including at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, which houses a unionized Hyatt hotel. Last summer the Hyatt Park Hotel in Chicago turned on heat lamps over striking workers on a sweltering June day, a move hotel managers said was a mistake and workers said was an intimidation tactic. 

The global boycott coincides with a social media campaign to vote Hyatt the “worst hotel employer in America.”  In addition to being supported by the AFL-CIO and Change to Win coalition, the boycott and social media campaign are also backed by the NFL Players Association—whose members presumably have stayed in countless hotels during their careers—and other groups, including the National Organization of Women, MoveOn.org, Netroots Nation, American Rights at Work, the Courage Campaign, the United Farm Workers, Making Change at Walmart and the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs.

Regarding the NFL Players’ support, the Hyatt Hurts website notes:

[NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice] Smith emphasized that NFL players know what it’s like to work in pain, and that they recently faced their own “speedup” when the owners wanted them to play an extra two games per season. He noted that only by joining together were the players able to defeat the owners’ proposal: “We’ve learned the same lessons that these housekeepers know. That if they stick together and fight for what’s right, they have a chance. If they try to fight by themselves, if they let a corporation divide them, it will be worse for everyone.”

About 30 percent of Hyatts in major markets are unionized, according to UNITE HERE, compared to about 40 percent of Hilton and Starwood hotels. As relationships with the company have deteriorated, most of the unionized Hyatt workers have been working without a contract for up to three years. Lyons says that Starwood and Hilton have offered thousands of their workers “a fair process to unionize” recently, whereas Hyatt has “allowed only about 500 workers that right.”

Indianapolis is the largest U.S. city without a union hotel, according to UNITE HERE. The boycott does not include two Hawaii Hyatts that have contracts with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and a number of Hyatts with UNITE HERE contracts. 

The use of increasing use of contractors has dovetailed with increasing workloads for cleaners, increasing their risk of injuries and attracting the attention of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

“The worst days are Sundays and Mondays when people have just checked out and the rooms are really messy,” says Bahena, who is also a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in January against Hyatt, other Indianapolis hotels and the contractor Hospitality Staffing Solutions.  “After a Sunday, I feel really, really tired. After a long day my feet and my knees hurt.”

UNITE HERE says that Hyatt’s practices are particularly harmful to women, who make up a majority of the cleaning workforce and allege they are often retaliated against and discriminated against. Ten thousand people worldwide have signed a petition in support of two Santa Clara Hyatt cleaners who were fired after they complained about digitally altered photos of them in bikinis posted on a hotel bulletin board.

Academics in gender and women’s studies (and other fields) wrote a letter casting this incident in the context of widespread abuses of women workers at Hyatt hotels, saying:

The sexualization of housekeepers by Hyatt management is an appalling expression of power that has no place at work. It has tangible physical as well as psychological impacts. It belongs to a long list of well-documented abusive and unsafe practices that Hyatt housekeepers, many of them women of color, all over the country endure.

Cathy Youngblood, a 61-year-old housekeeper at the Hyatt Andraz on the Sunset Strip, sees the working conditions of housekeepers as a clear-cut women’s rights issue. (Click here to learn more about Youngblood and other Hyatt workers.)

“The way Hyatt treats its women housekeepers is like an unidentified, unspoken attack on women, immigrants, and minorities,” Youngblood says. “I came through the Civil Rights era—that taught me how to speak up, especially when I think a workforce is being abused. Hyatt doesn’t like the word abuse, but that is what they are doing to women, immigrants and minorities.”

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis. Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

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