Hotel workers issue wake-up call

Many-top-of-the-line hotels brag about their “heavenly beds.” But triple sheets, oversize mattresses, heavy comforters and five or six pillows make for a work load from hell for today’s hotel workers. And while global hotel chains are expecting heavenly record-breaking profits in 2006, the nation’s hotel workers are struggling in an industry plagued with poverty-level wages.

Hotel Workers Rising! is a campaign by Unite Here to join unionized hotel workers with those not yet unionized in a year when contracts will be expiring in 400 hotels employing 50,000 workers in the U.S. and Canada.

The campaign’s program is broader than the contracts expiring this year, says Unite Here’s President/Hospitality John Wilhelm. It aims to link union workers with their brothers and sisters who are not yet organized, taking on the multimillion dollar corporations such as Starwood, Hilton and Marriott that now dominate the industry in every city.

“Wages for the same jobs vary wildly from city to city,” says the union and workers find themselves struggling to keep important benefits like health care and retirement and their right to have a union.

That right to have a union is important to Angela Reed, a bartender at the Glendale Los Angeles Hilton who is fighting to “get the union into” her hotel where “it is definitely needed.” Reed described some of the pre-union workers’ tactics.” If something goes wrong for one employee, 40 others surround her and all go to the manager together,” she told a teleconference announcing Hotelworkers Rising!’s founding. “In four days we did a petition and 75 percent said ‘we want a union,’” she related. “If it wasn’t for us, the business would not run.”

A kickoff tour for the new movement will cover four cities in as many days, starting Feb. 15 in San Francisco and moving on to Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston.

Events will feature 2004 vice presidential candidate John Edwards and actor-activist Danny Glover as well as scores of both union and nonunion hotel workers who will introduce their goals and highlight the critical role of hospitality workers in the local economies.

The campaign will create opportunities for hotel workers to travel from one community to another, said Wilhelm, and allow workers from one chain to sit in on others’ negotiations.

Wilhelm pointed out the direct correlation between union density and wages. In New York and San Francisco, 90 percent of full-service hotels are organized, he said, and wages run $18-19 an hour. In Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, where the union rate is about 50 percent, wages run about $12 or $13. In Seattle, with 20 percent, wages are down to $8 or $9. Emphasizing that wages are tied to organization rates, not room rates, Wilhelm cited the example of Scottsdale, Ariz., where the room rates are sky high but absence of union contracts leaves pay hovering around the minimum wage.

The largest group within the hotel workers is housekeepers who often make 20 or more beds per day. They frequently suffer physical injuries from the heavy workloads and must often work through their breaks and off the clock to meet quotas.

At this time Unite Here is not seeking a national contract, “but we are joining together to support one another,” said Wilhelm. There are some national issues the union is raising, however, including immigrant workers’ rights and the demand for the hotel industry to hire African Americans.

The hotel industry is the most rapidly growing industry in the country, according to Wilhelm. The union is focusing its energy on service jobs, which, it says, by their nature cannot be exported. It aims to transform them into “middle class jobs” that support a family just as sweatshop jobs were transformed by industrial organization 70 years ago. “No one has found a better, more effective anti-poverty program than unionization,” he added.

“We are hungry for a change here,” said rank and file activist Reed. “This should be a positive virus for everyone throughout the U.S. and Canada to catch.”