In Michael Moore’s highly praised 1989 documentary, Roger & Me, General Motors CEO Roger Smith famously refused to meet the filmmaker, who wanted to discuss the company’s role in destroying his home town of Flint, Mich.
But another supplicant in the same decade had better luck. Cathy Youngblood, who worked in a Columbus, Ohio, auto plant that GM had threatened to close, went to an annual shareholders meeting on her own initiative and asked that the company’s executives and board members listen to workers at her plant.
Smith agreed. Youngblood escorted him around the factory for a day to talk with workers, and GM held off the closing for five years.
Now Youngblood works in the Hyatt-owned Andaz West Hollywood hotel. A union member, she told the story of Smith at a UNITE HERE gathering last year. The tale spread swiftly and inspired a new effort by UNITE HERE: a campaign to put Youngblood on Hyatt’s board of directors.
UNITE HERE is calling upon the hotel chain to add Youngblood as either a 13th member of its corporate board or a “liaison” between hotel workers and the board, so that members can hear directly about how their policies affect workers like her. The move is a bid to amplify workers’ voices in what UNITE HERE members see as a fight against corporate mismanagement and abuse of their bodies, their dignity and their rights. It complements the union’s educational campaign about health and safety issues in the hotel chain — “Hyatt Hurts” — and its boycott of most Hyatts.
All of the UNITE HERE campaigns dovetail upon a single goal: to pressure Hyatt to sign contracts with workers in line with those of other major hotel chains. Currently, many Hyatt employees are working under contracts that have expired, some for as long as five years. Besides health and safety issues and subcontracting, the biggest point of contention with Hyatt is over the union’s right to organize non-union hotel workers without management interference.
The new campaign for a worker representative on the board, dubbed “Someone Like Me” by the union, could easily be called “Penny and Me.”
Billionaire heiress Penny Pritzker, rumored to be President Obama’s pick for Commerce Secretary, sits on the board of Hyatt, and the union calculates that the Pritzker family and allies control 97 percent of Hyatt stock. But neither Penny Pritzker, nor any other top officials have met with Youngblood. Hyatt’s only official statement on the matter said that Youngblood has not followed proper procedures to run for the board — even though she is asking the company to expand the board, not trying to contest a seat.
“They have the power to do it … but they don’t want to hear from the people who do the work in their hotels,” Youngblood tell Working In These Times. “But we know what needs to be done. … If you own the company, why wouldn’t you listen to your most valuable staff?”
Dressed in a conservative blue suit and white top, her hair turning gray, Youngblood, 61, looks and sounds like a board director. But as an African-American woman with a work history as varied as it is long, Youngblood pledges to use her voice on behalf of workers like her.
“What would I change?” she asked a crowd of several hundred hotel workers at a Wednesday night rally in Chicago. “The first thing I’d do is every housekeeper in every hotel would be allowed to drop rooms immediately [from their list of assignments] if they can’t finish or something went wrong. Second, the business of hiring workers part-time under subcontractor, that has to end. We want workers full-time. The third that I would put in place immediately: All Hyatt workers would have the right to join a union.”
Before Youngblood started working for Hyatt three years ago, she spent 13.5 years on the auto assembly line and held jobs as a private housekeeper, a line worker in several other factories, a clerical worker, a retail sales clerk, a temp service worker, a fast food server and more. In her fifties, after moving to southern California, she went back to school while working, earning an associate degree from a trade school, then a B.A. cum laude in anthropology and Africana studies at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
After all this experience, she says, “This job doing hotel housekeeping is the hardest job I’ve done in my life….We work at jobs where at the end of the day everything hurts, and you go home and can’t even relax.”
Most workers toil under constant fear of management, says Youngblood, and “fear is paralyzing most workers.” It nearly paralyzed her, but she figured out how to overcome it, as she explained at the rally.
One day early in her Hyatt career, when her rent was overdue and she desperately needed to keep her job, she was far behind schedule because many of her rooms had proved difficult to clean. But her supervisor would not cut her workload, she recalled, even though she had worked through her legally mandated breaks. “I couldn’t take it any more. When I spoke up, my knees were shaking.”
Her co-workers, who often had similar difficulties meeting their quotas, witnessed Youngblood stand up to the supervisor — but rather than join with her, they silently went back to work, one by one. Youngblood went in the bathroom and threw up from fear and tension, then went back to work herself. But she had realized the importance of forging bonds of solidarity with co-workers.
“Hyatt tries many ways to separate us — by race, ethnicity, and immigration status,” she said. “I was shocked at how my immigrant brothers and sisters were treated. We worked on the same jobs, but they were treated much worse. You know that’s not right, and we began to hold conversations about that. I talked to my housekeeping sisters, and they reached out to me. Even though we came from different countries and different cultures, we began to understand that we had to stick together and do something.”
Months later, on a picket line she found herself beating a drum to an African beat while a Latino worker drummed a salsa rhythm and Asian workers in a paper dragon costume danced along. “At that moment, I said, “We’ve got ‘em. We’ve got Hyatt,’” she said. “There were those conversations that I’d been afraid to take, and they’d been afraid to take, but we finally understood, ‘We’ve got power.’”
Means and ends
By law in many European countries, workers have representatives on corporate boards, who often exercise great influence. In the United States, some corporations — like Chrysler—have seated union or worker representatives on their boards, but usually grant them little influence.
Youngblood’s campaign may be a long shot: Hyatt has rarely bowed to union pressure. But the campaign can continue to make the case that corporations themselves stand to gain by treating workers better and including them in decisions, through both a union and board representation.
Youngblood says Hyatt board members are acting like kids in a schoolyard fight by hiding behind a phalanx of bully lawyers. “The time has come,” she says, “for the board to put on its big boy and big girl pants and honestly discuss these problems with us.”
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. 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 has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.