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This article was first posted at Labor Notes.
While many union members needed time to recover from the presidential election results, a group of Santa Monica, California, hotel workers didn’t have time to spare. News of Donald Trump’s victory only pushed them to fight harder to win their union election at a beachfront hotel.
A week after Trump’s win, hotel workers at Le Merigot Hotel voted 27 to 15 to unionize with UNITE HERE Local 11.
Throughout his campaign the president-elect routinely vilified immigrants. The hotel workers are mostly immigrant women, a majority of them from Mexico and El Salvador.
“Once Trump takes over it’s going to be harder for us,” said housekeeper Filadelfia Alcala. “We had to get everyone on board. We wanted to protect ourselves from him.”
Local 11 has contract language and a campaign history of defending immigrants regardless of their status.
The hotel went all in to keep the 45 hotel workers from joining the union. Management hired anti-union consultants and forced employees to sit through almost daily anti-union meetings.
None of it worked. Now workers are forming a bargaining team to win their first union contract.
Workers say it was the increase in workload that pushed them to form a union.
Housekeepers used to clean 13 rooms in an eight-hour shift, Alcala said, but hotel managers started pushing for 15. She told her manager it wasn’t possible. The response was that if she didn’t like it, she could leave.
Aurelia Gonzalez, a 15-year employee, helped sign up her co-workers for the union. “We told them, ‘We have to do something, or we are going to die working,’” she said.
On top of being asked to clean two more rooms per day, Alcala and Gonzalez say they were constantly being given more tasks, from cleaning hotel balconies and mini-fridges to watering plants. As people quit in frustration or were pushed out, work piled up. Managers put more pressure on the remaining workforce.
“They blame everything on us,” said Alcala. “Today it’s me, the next day it could be anyone.”
Meanwhile, workers say they weren’t being paid overtime when they worked past eight hours. California state law requires a pay rate of time-and-a-half for hours worked beyond eight hours per day.
To meet their quotas, housekeepers would often work through breaks and lunches. They also complained that the hotel refused to offer light duty to those injured on the job.
When Santa Monica’s minimum wage for hotel workers went into effect on July 1, 2016, their pay went from $10 to $13.25, the new minimum wage. Still, they made $3 to $4 less per hour than the union Loews hotel next door — where workers only had to clean 11 rooms per day.
After the Le Merigot workers filed for a union election October 25, the hotel owners brought in MTI Consulting, a union-busting firm whose website boasts of its 90 percent success rate at keeping unions out.
During the intense three-week period between the filing and the vote, management met with employees in groups and individually.
Alcala said managers, anti-union consultants, and even CEO John Hawkins would corner workers in hotel rooms while they were cleaning, closing the door to talk to them alone.
How did the workers hold up under such pressure? It helped that UNITE HERE organizers had warned leaders in advance about what the boss would say. The committee was prepared for all the company’s messages, including, “We won’t be a family anymore,” “The union will make you pay dues and go on strike,” and “You will lose your benefits.”
“They told us, ‘If you vote no to the union, things are going to change. You are going to get a raise,’” Gonzalez said. But it was obvious the sudden promises were a reaction to workers’ organizing.
The CEO even said, “Give us 60 days to improve” — but this didn’t carry much water with Alcala, since the hotel had been operating for decades. “You had 17 years, and now you want to do something about it? Why?” she said.
Staying on offense
To help counter the misinformation, union supporters leafleted before anti-union meetings and met to debrief after work. But beyond playing defense, the organizing committee also planned actions to demonstrate collective strength and unity.
Once a majority of housekeepers supported the union, they did a series of marches on the boss. The first one was to present their union petition and demand that the hotel start paying overtime.
They followed with a series of delegations over health and safety complaints — and then another demanding to see their own personnel files, to make sure that injuries were being properly documented and recognized.
Workers weren’t alone on these delegations. The union enlisted Santa Monica’s mayor, city council members, community supporters, and clergy to join their actions, and to meet workers after their shifts to show support.
Management’s final stunt was to post an election day schedule listing specific times when each employee could go and vote. Instead of complying, the 29 pro-union workers came up with their own plan to vote as soon as the polls opened. “Everyone is going to vote at 6 a.m. together, so they can’t do anything to us during the day,” Alcala said.
She stayed for the vote count that night. Though two ballots from the group of 29 who voted early were challenged, the wide margin made it inconsequential.
“When we got out, my co-workers were waiting across the street,” she said. “We started screaming ‘Si se pudo!’ [Yes we could!]”
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Samantha Winslow is a labor organizer and writer. She has worked with healthcare, teacher and transit unions and was previously a staff writer on the education beat for Labor Notes.