These Hotel Workers Say They Shouldn’t Have to Work Multiple Jobs to Make Ends Meet

Bruce Vail August 7, 2019

(Photo courtesy of UNITE HERE Local 7)

Hotel work­ers union UNITE HERE isn’t rest­ing on its lau­rels after win­ning a con­tract fight with the giant Mar­riott chain late last year. The union is pur­su­ing new orga­niz­ing efforts, includ­ing a push in Bal­ti­more for a first con­tract cov­er­ing some 145 new­ly union­ized mem­bers there, accord­ing to Vikas Mohite, a full-time Mar­riott employ­ee and active rank-and-file union member.

UNITE HERE Local 7, strong­ly backed by an ener­gized local labor com­mu­ni­ty, ral­lied July 27 at the Mar­riott Bal­ti­more Water­front hotel to demand that cor­po­rate man­agers end their delay­ing tac­tics and get down to the busi­ness of nego­ti­at­ing a con­tract. Food and bev­er­age staffers won the right to a union in a gov­ern­ment-super­vised elec­tion May 2 in which they vot­ed 70 – 51 for the union, work­er-activist Mohammed Saif tells In These Times.

The elec­tion win was part of the nation­al UNITE HERE’s One Job Should be Enough” cam­paign to improve exist­ing con­tracts at select Mar­riott hotels, and to win labor union rights at the chain’s many non-union oper­a­tions. It was launched last year ahead of the expi­ra­tion of some major union con­tracts, and it con­tin­ues now with new orga­niz­ing efforts in Bal­ti­more and elsewhere.

The final elec­tion num­bers at the Bal­ti­more Mar­riott are a lit­tle mis­lead­ing, Saif explains, because the orga­niz­ing cam­paign begun last Sep­tem­ber had actu­al­ly attract­ed much stronger ini­tial sup­port. Saif and oth­ers had suc­ceed­ed in get­ting some 112 work­ers to sign union autho­riza­tion cards, he says, and the pro-union forces esti­mat­ed they would get about 90 votes on elec­tion day. But a very aggres­sive effort by Mar­riott to sup­press the union, which includ­ed com­pul­so­ry anti-union meet­ing, fir­ings of pro-union activists, and one-on-one pres­sure tac­tics, suc­ceed­ed in scar­ing off or intim­i­dat­ing vot­ers, accord­ing to Saif.

Saif’s charges against Mar­riott are backed up by cowork­ers and union offi­cials. They’ve fired four union sup­port­ers since this cam­paign began. It’s impos­si­ble to believe that is some kind of coin­ci­dence,” says Local 7 Pres­i­dent Rox­ie Her­bekian. The cor­po­rate peo­ple came. And they scared peo­ple,” adds Vikas Mohite, anoth­er Mar­riott work­er and union activist.

Con­tact­ed by In These Times, Mar­riott cor­po­rate spokesman Jeff Fla­her­ty said the com­pa­ny would not respond to indi­vid­ual charges made by the union but that Mar­riott denies any alle­ga­tions of improp­er con­duct. We have always nego­ti­at­ed our col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments in good faith, at the bar­gain­ing table and not in the press, and will con­tin­ue to do so here.”

Alleged intim­i­da­tion tac­tics notwith­stand­ing, food and bev­er­age staffers are unit­ed in the demand for a con­tract that pro­vides for high­er wages and bet­ter health care, Saif and Mohite explain. Ban­quet servers typ­i­cal­ly receive a base pay of only about $5.20 an hour and must rely on income from a ser­vice charge” paid by hotel cus­tomers for the bulk of their wage income. Mohite says that mon­ey from the ser­vice charge is pooled and then a small per­cent­age is divid­ed among the work­ers. A high pri­or­i­ty in the new con­tract is to raise the per­cent­age of ser­vice-charge income paid to staffers so that full-time work as a ban­quet serv­er pro­vides a liv­ing income with­out the need to hold down a sec­ond job. That’s not the case for Mohite right now, he tells In These Times, as he typ­i­cal­ly works as an Uber Eats deliv­ery man each day after he fin­ish­es his Mar­riott shift.

Health insur­ance pro­vid­ed by Mar­riott is like­wise inad­e­quate, accord­ing to the union. A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber have no com­pa­ny cov­er­age at all, Saif says, and oth­ers will have their com­pa­ny health cov­er­age can­celled dur­ing the off sea­son when busi­ness is slow. Reg­u­lar cov­er­age for all full-time work­ers is a key con­tract demand.

If met, these demands will bring the Mar­riott work­ers up to the lev­els estab­lished by UNITE HERE con­tracts already in place at the Bal­ti­more Hilton, Hyatt Regency Inner Har­bor, Radis­son and Crowne Plaza hotels, says Local 7 staff direc­tor Tra­cy Lingo.

The July 27 demon­stra­tion in front of the Mar­riott showed a local labor com­mu­ni­ty strong­ly unit­ed behind the demand for a fair con­tract. Mar­riott work­ers made up a small per­cent­age of the 50 to 75 marchers with the major­i­ty com­ing from a half dozen oth­er local unions show­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty with the hotel work­ers. Promi­nent were mem­bers of Nation­al Nurs­es Unit­ed, which is cur­rent­ly engaged in an orga­niz­ing dri­ve at Johns Hop­kins Hos­pi­tal, and the Musi­cians union, Local 40 – 543, now suf­fer­ing a lock out by the man­agers of the Bal­ti­more Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra. Oth­er unions rep­re­sent­ed at the hotel demon­stra­tion includ­ed the Bal­ti­more Teach­ers Union, the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Gov­ern­ment Employ­ees and the Labor­ers’ Inter­na­tion­al Union of North America.

The Mar­riott work­ers are encour­aged by the local sup­port from oth­er unions, Mohite says, but were espe­cial­ly inspired by the late 2018 strikes that hit eight cities across the coun­try, notably in Boston, Detroit, and San Fran­cis­co. In those actions, more than 7,000 UNITE HERE mem­bers par­tic­i­pat­ed in job actions to pres­sure the com­pa­ny to renew old union con­tracts. The union want­ed new con­tracts with improved wages and ben­e­fits and was large­ly suc­cess­ful in that effort, accord­ing to Lingo.

Mar­riott, with a long his­to­ry of hos­til­i­ty to unions of all kinds, has tak­en on a greater impor­tance for UNITE HERE fol­low­ing a 2016 merg­er with Star­wood Hotels that made Mar­riott the biggest com­pa­ny of its kind any­where in the world. Accord­ing to com­pa­ny web­site, Mar­riott cur­rent­ly oper­ates 5,700 prop­er­ties in 110 coun­tries. It is esti­mat­ed to have about 176,000 employees.

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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