Hotel Workers Rising Tide

A “Movement for Equality” tops UNITE HERE’s agenda

David Moberg

Actor Danny Glover speaks at a UNTE HERE rally on February 16, in Los Angeles.

Call him Eduardo. A legal immigrant from Mexico in his early twenties, Eduardo lives in a basement bungalow apartment in a modest blue-collar suburb of Chicago. He works full time in one big, city-center hotel as a houseman, supporting the women who clean the rooms, and part-time in another as a banquet waiter. He doesn’t want his real name used, not because he’s done anything wrong, but because he would like to have a union at work. And a few months ago when some co-workers at his hotel began organizing publicly, the leaders were fired. 

The bosses don’t respect us,” he says, explaining why he secretly continues to help organize. They treat us like slaves. We have our integrity. We have to get paid better, get better benefits. Also, they don’t have consideration for nobody. Every time, they expect you to do more than yesterday.” 

Eddie Sims would understand. He’s a houseman at the Chicago Hilton and Towers, where as a shop steward in the union he regularly files grievances over management efforts to increase the workloads of housekeepers and cut back on staff. Nearly four years ago, after the Chicago local had undergone two years of reform, it won a 37 percent pay increase for room attendants, lifting wages to $12 an hour this spring and greatly reducing what workers had to pay for their health insurance. That victory prompted most big non-union hotels, such as Eduardo’s, to raise their pay – though not to unionized levels – just to keep the union out.

This year, the Chicago Hilton contract is up for renewal, as are contracts at other major cities including Toronto, New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Boston and San Francisco where UNITE HERE represents a large share of hotel workers. Hotel workers in those cities have gone without a contract for more than a year and a half. Like the rest of the 60,000 UNITE HERE members at more than 400 hotels, Sims hopes the results of this year’s negotiations will improve his life.

We need more pay,” he says, as he explains how staff cutbacks have increased his workload. We’re not getting enough for the work we’re doing. We not only do our job but everybody else’s job, too.”

But Sims also hopes that negotiations this year can help bring people like Eduardo into the union. It’s very important to me,” he says. We’ve got a lot of people in the hotels that are non-union, and that makes it tough on people in the union to make the work better if we go out on strike.” 

He also wants other hotel workers like Eduardo to share some of the less tangible, but equally important, benefits of being in a union. I feel I can’t be touched by management when the union is behind me,” Sims says. When I face them, I have no fear. I’m fighting for my rights and my people, trying to make a better world.”

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Eduardo and Eddie are two faces of one of the most ambitious union campaigns in recent decades to make that better world, an effort by UNITE HERE to campaign simultaneously for hotel workers who are in the union and those who are not – or at least not yet. Under the slogan Hotel Workers Rising,” the union is trying to create a movement for equality” that will make the quality and rewards of work in the vast, low-paid ranks of the service sector a central issue of public morality in American politics. 

It’s not just about these workers, but the kind of America we live in,” former Sen. John Edwards told the 2,000 hotel workers and allies gathered at Chicago’s luxurious Drake Hotel for one of the campaign’s opening rallies on Feb. 17. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in an America where we have a few rich people and everyone else. So we are joined together in a just, moral and righteous cause.”

With this campaign, UNITE HERE is also trying to adapt itself to better confront a dramatically restructured hotel industry. In the past, hotels were mostly owned and operated by local investors, and contracts were negotiated for local urban markets. But today, most hotels are part of large global chains with complex relationships between the hotel operator, franchisor and owner. Whatever the structure, control of the industry has shifted to global corporations, leaving the union stuck with local contracts.

Starting four years ago, UNITE HERE began bargaining so that as many of its contracts as possible would expire this year. Although the union will still negotiate contracts city by city, the local unions and the international are working together to plan contract demands and strategy. UNITE HERE will also be appealing for special support from its partners in Change To Win, the labor federation that broke away from the AFL-CIO last year.

If, in the coming months, the companies put up stiff opposition, more and more city contracts could expire and remain open. The San Francisco contract has remained open since 2004, following a strike, a lockout and a boycott of many hotels that continues today. If hotel management continues its resistance until this fall, the result could be worker actions in many cities simultaneously – the potential equivalent of a full-blown national strike.

But at the moment, John Wilhelm, president of the hospitality division of UNITE HERE, is offering the industry an olive branch. Our challenge to the American hotel industry is to join with their employees and our union to take advantage of a wonderful opportunity to figure out how to make service sector jobs, particularly service sector jobs that cannot be exported, into jobs that can rekindle the middle class dream in our society,” Wihlem says.

Manufacturing jobs in the steel and auto industries were only good jobs after they were unionized, Wilhelm argues. Global economic forces are either moving those jobs out of the country or making them worse, but hotel jobs can’t be moved. 

Despite a downturn after 9/11, which the industry used to slash its workforce, the hotel industry is now quite profitable. But hotel workers aren’t sharing the bounty. Hotel work has never been easy. The injury rates for hotel workers are among the highest in the service sector. More than three-fourths of housekeepers report work-related pain, most of it serious enough to see a doctor or take time off, and two-thirds regularly take medication for pain caused by stress and overexertion at work.

In recent years, the stress of hotel work has increased with the amenity war” among luxury hotels. Starwood, the proprietor of Sheraton, Westin, W and other brands, kicked off the competition with its heavenly beds,” made of far heavier mattresses and more pillows and bedding for workers to handle every day. As the number of items in the room grows and the attention to detail becomes more persnickety, the workload increases for housekeepers.

They say, We are changing the rooms to make them more nice, more beautiful for the guests,’” says Elena Ortega, a housekeeper at W Hotel in Chicago. Yes, it’s more beautiful, but they don’t think, It takes more time to clean the rooms.’ It’s fine for the companies, but it’s too much work. We don’t take breaks. We don’t take lunch. If we don’t finish, maybe they fire us.” 

The pay hardly compensates for the pain. Some tipped workers in big hotels, like banquet servers, doormen, waiters and bartenders, can make comfortable incomes, but the average hotel housekeeper in the United States makes $7.85 an hour, not enough for a full-time worker to rise above the understated official poverty level for a family of four, now set at $18,850 a year.

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The nation’s full-service hotels represent a microcosm of the growing inequality in the United States. With their amenity wars, these luxury hotels cater to the top 10 percent of the population, which has captured half of all income gains over the past 35 years, according to a recent study by Northwestern University economists Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon. On the other hand, workers in non-union hotels are part of the population that over the past quarter century has seen almost no increase in after-tax income.

Unions can still shift the distribution of power and wealth. A housekeeper in San Francisco, where about 90 percent of hotel workers are unionized, makes $15 an hour, compared with Boston and Chicago, where 50 to 60 percent are in unions and the average wage is $12 to $13 an hour, or Atlanta or Phoenix, where very few are unionized and wages are $8 to $9 an hour. The room rates are similar at every Hilton or Sheraton. The difference lies in the degree of unionization.

The greatest anti-poverty program in American history is the organized labor movement,” Edwards told the cheering hotel workers in Chicago, significantly revising the venerable Democratic applause line that the best anti-poverty program is a job. An unofficial presidential aspirant, Edwards called for real labor law reform,” swift and severe punishment of labor law violators and neutrality on the part of employers so workers can decide without interference” on whether to join a union.

That’s where the second part of Hotel Workers Rising enters. In the past five years, UNITE HERE has organized more than 12,000 new workers, mostly in full-service, big city hotels, where the union is strongest. But even once a majority of workers had signed membership cards, it still took hard fights to pressure hotel managers to recognize the union. Yet in an industry with 1.4 million workers, where less than 10 percent of all hotel and motel workers are unionized, UNITE HERE wants to organize faster and on a much greater scale.

Union strategists have long indicated that this year they would like to win national agreements from hotel chains to remain neutral and simply check union cards for recognition. The hotel industry has geared up to fight for elections as more democratic than card check. 

UNITE HERE has persuaded hotel operators to be neutral in a variety of ways. In both San Francisco and Boston, for example, hotels have agreed to neutrality in certain new developments or after acquisition of properties, and in many cities, UNITE HERE has managed to make neutrality a condition for operators of hotels built as part of publicly subsidized projects.

Wilhelm now says, We’re not especially concerned about the details of the process, but we do strongly believe that workers should not be subjected to harassment and intimidation if they want to join a union.” 

In a presentation to a group of Wall Street analysts, Wilhelm emphasized that the union wanted above all to establish a cooperative relationship with the Hiltons and Starwoods of the industry, but their top executives wouldn’t even meet with him. There is more money to be saved on cooperative undertakings in health care, worker compensation and training than to be won by either side in adversarial collective bargaining,” he argued.

He also told analysts that a cooperative relationship was necessary to deliver the customer service that the luxury hotels see as essential for winning upscale business and leisure customers. The hotel industry, led by Starwood, has changed from an industry selling beds and meals to one selling an emotional experience,” Wilhelm said. It can’t deliver or extract the charges it wants without involving workers. A luxury lifestyle can’t be delivered by people in poverty.”

But many of the hotel giants show little interest in cooperation, especially Hilton. We have to be particularly persuasive or find other ways to make them recognize it’s the smart thing to do,” says Chicago local union president Henry Tamarin. We say we want to be partners, but that doesn’t mean they’ll leap into our arms. Negotiations are not won by rationality of arguments. This has to do with the balance of power.”

This year, the union’s efforts to link union and non-union workers could help tip the balance in its favor. In Los Angeles, organizing campaigns at five major hotels, including two Hiltons, have gone public. Seventy to 90 percent of workers in these hotels have signed petitions calling for a new strategy for the industry, including a fair process for union recognition. The union has mobilized community and political supporters, who see better pay for hotel workers as crucial for both economic development and social justice. And it has enlisted union workers fighting for a new contract in the work of organizing new workers. The drive is drawing high-profile supporters; at the February launch of the Hotel Workers Rising campaign in Los Angeles, Wihelm, actor Danny Glover and Los Angeles city attorney Rocky Delgadillo walked through the LAX Hilton, talking with employees and then rallying in the cafeteria. 

But, fundamentally, the link is between workers,” says Los Angeles organizing director Kurt Petersen. Housekeepers in one Hilton property clean three more rooms than another; one has health insurance, and the other doesn’t. The link becomes clearer when they talk one-on-one. There’s this consciousness that as one Hilton worker does better, we all do better.” 

As the contract fight progresses, other organizing drives will go public, boosting both the contract fights and organizing drives. This strengthens our union’s commitment to turn this into a movement,” says San Francisco union president Mike Casey. Unless the industry understands … we’re becoming a movement of hotel workers across North America, we’re not going to be able to deliver improvements for our members and workers outside the union.”

Although key items like wages, benefits and work rules will be negotiated locally, the union hopes to engage top corporate executives in discussions about crucial policies. For example, Wilhelm wants hotels not to dismiss immigrant workers while the workers are trying to resolve immigration issues. At the same time, UNITE HERE is backing the Kennedy-McCain immigration reform bill that is also supported by the hotel industry. But UNITE HERE also wants the hotel industry to commit to hiring more African-American workers, so they can take advantage of worker gains in the industry. Other national topics could include union rights beyond employer neutrality in organizing, such as the right to honor picket lines or to play a role in selecting uniform and laundry companies (which could help UNITE HERE in its drive to organize industrial laundries, especially the giant Cintas).

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Ultimately the union’s campaign will only reach full potential if it becomes a broader movement that challenges the growing inequality in American society. Such a movement must give force to the widely shared sense that everyone who works is entitled to a life that reflects the wealth of this country – a comfortable home, universal health care, high quality public education from child care through college, secure retirement and, most important, a living wage.” Although the union campaign’s top priority is uniting all hotel workers, Casey argues, it should extend well beyond our sector of the economy.”

Hotel Workers Rising feeds into local movements for a living wage and state campaigns for a higher minimum wage, including initiatives in at least six states this election year. With the support from the mayors of San Francisco and Los Angeles and presidential hopeful Edwards, UNITE HERE hopes to push economic inequality more toward the center stage of American politics, making economics a moral issue, not just a technical matter to be sorted out by the marketplace. 

The hotel worker campaign faces some formidable obstacles. Take wages: Unions were able to raise manufacturing wages – until they were undercut by globalization – partly because manufacturers could invest in new technology to boost productivity. But in the services sector, there are fewer opportunities for increasing productivity. As a result, service unions will need to rely less on contracts with employers to create the middle class American dream for their workers and more on the creation of universal social programs, like national health insurance and strengthened public pensions. And those new programs will have to be financed with taxes that explicitly redistribute more equitably the growth of the American economy without regard to a specific job or employer. But for this to succeed in the era of globalization, all of organized labor will have to head in that direction.

Emmanuel Asare, a 39-year old immigrant from Ghana who works two full-time hotel jobs to support his family, understands the concept of broader solidarity very well. It’s very important for me to organize more hotel workers so we can come together as a big union, a united union, so we can stand up,” says Asare, a Chicago union member. Without that, the companies don’t offer anything.”

David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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