Hotel Workers Crack Hilton, Face Quickie Hyatt Elections

Hotel workers in three cities have wrested contracts from Hilton after a year and a half of pickets, lobby takeovers, boycotts, and short strikes. They hope this victory will set off a cascade of agreements in the recovering hospitality industry. Photo: UNITE HERE

Hotel workers in three cities have wrested contracts from Hilton after a year and a half of pickets, lobby takeovers, boycotts, and short strikes. They hope this victory will set off a cascade of agreements in the recovering hospitality industry.

Meanwhile, Hyatt continued its offensive against its staff, turning to a new tactic in hotels where workers are trying to unionize: the employer filed for union elections, trying to break ongoing boycotts. So far the NLRB has turned down two out of four petitions.

“Hilton has broken ranks with the corporations that were determined to force a loss on members,” said Eric Gill, financial secretary-treasurer of UNITE HERE in Honolulu. By 99 percent, voters approved the contract with Hilton Hawaiian Village, the largest hotel in Hawaii. Fifteen hundred housekeepers, valets, and food service workers are covered, including 75 who had earlier been contracted out.

One hotel worker in San Francisco compared the union’s multiple efforts to hitting a piñata—you keep whacking at it from different angles and never know exactly when it will crack open.

In Chicago, four Hiltons signed agreements that closely resembled their last contract, which workers counted as a victory. The employer had been demanding concessions for 18 months, but contracts maintained pensions and health care, and improved workloads, pay, and job security.

After years of incremental improvements, “the company wanted to take things away, push us back,” said Flavio Gonzalez, a 16-year server at the Hilton Chicago. “The main thing we wanted to do is keep the things we already gained.”

Gonzalez and his co-workers struck the Hilton for three days in October to get negotiations moving again.

Apart from the Hilton contracts and agreements in Vancouver and Toronto, many union hotel workers are still a long way from settlements. In San Francisco, UNITE HERE represents 8,000 workers working under extensions.

DEPRESSING ROOM QUOTAS

The new contracts promise to halt Hilton’s effort to pile more work on housekeepers. Management tried to give housekeepers 20 rooms a day, said Claudia Virto, a room attendant at Hilton Chicago. But the contract keeps the room quota at 16. Higher quotas would have led to layoffs and more injuries among remaining staff, along with more profits for Hilton.

In non-union hotels, the cleaning quota can rise as high as 30 rooms a day per worker. Hotels have been cutting staff even as they add amenities like coffee service and extra bedding, causing workers to race through their tasks, skip breaks and lunch, and suffer debilitating repetitive stress injuries to muscles that have no time to rest.

Hotels employed on average 71 workers per 100 rooms in 1988. Twenty years later, it was 53, according to a Wachovia Capital Markets report.

In negotiations, Hilton tried to impose a program that would have increased the room quota by 40 percent but eliminated certain tasks in some rooms.

But such programs, which Hyatt also uses, don’t account for the realities of hotel room cleaning, workers said. The rules say a housekeeper could skip a few things, like mopping the bathroom. “But in fact, you do have to mop it because there’s a spill—you don’t know until you get into the room,” said Susan Donahue, a steward at the Hilton San Francisco. The program is dead under the new contract, hotel workers said.

BOYCOTT YOUR WORKPLACE

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The contract settlements appear to result from a range of tactics, among them boycotts. UNITE HERE has made a science of boycotts, with constantly updated lists at its “Hotel Workers Rising” site. The union offers model contract language for conference organizers, to protect them from fees if a labor dispute causes them to relocate a meeting.

Hilton San Francisco had been under boycott for more than a year. The last contract expired in fall 2009.

“It’s very tough to call a boycott on your own hotel—there’s not as many shifts, and for tipped workers it’s an even bigger sacrifice,” said Donahue, a hotel cook for 21 years. She expected workers to blame her, she said, because as a steward she represents the union. But even as co-workers scrambled to get additional work outside the hotel, they understood what was at stake.

“They say, when’s the next action?” Donahue said. “What do you need me to do? They’re not believing the boss’s rhetoric.”

The San Francisco workers used creative tactics to push the boycott, including an impromptu speak-out conducted while hotel management was entertaining visiting convention planners. One worker told the planners that under Hilton’s proposed health plan, she would become ineligible for a life-saving bone marrow transplant.

Several workers faced discipline for the disruptions, but the hotel lost 10 percent of its business during the boycott, a Hilton official said March 4. He blamed the economy. But business has been picking up for hotels across the country in the same period, said Riddhi Mehta-Neugebauer of UNITE HERE in San Francisco.

A year-long boycott also netted a contract for workers at the Westin in Providence, Rhode Island. The contract reversed the subcontracting and 20 percent wage cuts the hotel had tried to impose.

At a party in February, workers plastered a drawing of the hotel with dollar amounts community and union allies had diverted during the boycott—a vivid accounting of lost revenue. The contract guarantees steady jobs even if business slows, and bans subcontracting.

NEW HYATT PLOY

Hyatt hotels under boycott are reacting to the heat.

In a strange turnabout, workers trying to organize unions at four Hyatts learned that management had filed for union elections. The hotels, in Indianapolis and San Francisco, Santa Clara, and Long Beach, California; are all targets of boycotts asking employers to be neutral and recognize the union if a majority say in writing that they want it. The process is called “card check” recognition.

Labor law allows management to petition for an election if it can show that the union was demanding recognition. Management doesn’t have to prove that workers want an election.

Hotel unionists said they had not encountered this tactic before and guessed management was trying to force a vote before on-site committees developed majority support.

The Labor Board denied two management petitions for an election last week, and regional board officers will consider management's other requests in coming weeks to decide whether they are legitimate.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #385, April 2011. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.