Hyatt workers draw the line

September 12, 2011

Matt Camp and Elizabeth Lalasz look at the issues at stake in a one-week strike of housekeepers at six Hyatt hotels in several cities around the U.S.

SOME 3,000 workers at Hyatt hotels in four U.S. cities went on strike September 8 in a planned one-week walkout to challenge what the UNITE HERE union calls "the worst employer in the hotel industry." The strike is targeting hotels in Chicago, Honolulu, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In Hyatt's home base of Chicago, patrons of the Hyatt Regency and Hyatt McCormick Place were greeted at the doors September 8 not by the concierge, but hundreds of angry strikers and their supporters beating drums and banging pots. The union's goal: to win a decent contract that secures a better life for Hyatt workers and their families, and that challenges abusive employer policies toward housekeepers.

Hyatt workers have been working without a contract for two years since the last agreement expired at the end of August 2009.

Among the issues at stake is Hyatt's drive to remove card-check language for newly acquired or constructed hotels--a clear attempt to weaken the union for the future. Another is the union's push for a contract that would allow members to participate in strikes and boycotts over unsafe job conditions.

Hyatt workers on the picket line outside the Hyatt Regency in downtown Chicago
Hyatt workers on the picket line outside the Hyatt Regency in downtown Chicago (Carole Ramsden | SW)

As one picketer said in an interview:

The reason we are here is because Hyatt is the only hotel company left without a contract. Hyatt is offering less than what the workers at the Hilton receive in job protection. What they do is offer the same wage and benefits proposal. However, they're lacking in protection against subcontracting. They're lacking in job-safety protection for housekeepers.

Hyatt housekeepers have faced increased workloads since the company laid off hundreds of full-time workers and replaced them with lower-paid, temporary, part-time workers. Hyatt housekeepers are also expected to maintain a cleaning rate of 30 rooms a day, a figure nearly double that of other unionized hotels.

"Two years ago, the Hyatt Regency renovated the hotel and bought in larger, heavier beds. It makes my job much more difficult," said Angela Martinez, a housekeeper at the Regency for nearly 23 years. "I can't lift the mattress because my left arm feels like it's coming out of the socket. We are hard-working women, not machines. I'm on strike because I want the right to stand up to Hyatt wherever it is abusing housekeepers."

What you can do

For information on supporting UNITE HERE strikers, visit the Hotel Workers Rising website. The union is encouraging people to join a picket line, send a message of solidarity to strikers and tell the Hyatt to stop abusing housekeepers.

Hyatt workers and the union have also called for a boycott of 17 Hyatt properties. The full list can be found online.

IN 2010, Hyatt had to defend itself against 780 citations of worker injuries occurring at 14 properties--that injury rate is 50 percent higher than the rest of the industry, according to UNITE HERE.

A study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine found that Hyatt housekeepers were more likely to get injured on the job than any other major hotel chain. To date, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and its state affiliates have filed 15 citations against 10 Hyatt hotels, a testament to just how dangerous it is to work for Hyatt.

The bitterness of Hyatt workers toward this company runs deep.

When Park Hyatt Chicago workers--also represented by UNITE HERE Local 1, like the properties currently being struck--went on a one-day walkout this past July, management retaliated by turning on heat lamps underneath the hotel awnings, apparently to try to cook out the demonstrators during a 100-degree-plus heat wave.

Hyatt also has a track record of hiring subcontractors to avoid paying a decent wage to its employees.

According to workers, after facing criticism for this practice, the corporation moved to hire more part-time employees, promising them full-time status and benefits if they pulled full-time hours for seven weeks in a row. Instead of fulfilling its promise, the company busted these workers back down to part-time hours once they worked for nearly seven weeks, halting their progression to full-time status and depriving them of potential benefits.

Hyatt's logic is simple: Why pay full-time wages to the people who put their sweat and blood into building the company into the most successful U.S. hotel chain when you can hire someone to do it cheaper?

HYATT IS owned by the Pritzkers, one of the wealthiest families in the U.S.--it has been ranked on Forbes magazine's "Richest Families List" since 1982.

Penny Sue Pritzker, heiress to the Hyatt fortune, alone is worth $1.7 billion. She is a well-known figure in the Democratic Party, serving as national finance chair for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. She was recently appointed to Chicago's Board of Education by Mayor Rahm Emanuel based on her anti-union and pro-school "reform" credentials.

The Pritzkers' wealth is directly connected to the business practices that UNITE HERE members are protesting now. The sheer volume of profits for the Hyatt chain is astronomical. As one striker named Michael, a Hyatt bartender for five years, said in an interview on the picket line at Hyatt McCormick Place:

The lowest cost of a room at the hotel is $179 per night. The most is about $450 per night, and this weekend, the hotel will be at 100 percent capacity due to a graphic trade show. They're also planning on expanding the Hyatt at McCormick Place by several hundred rooms in the near future.

We're just asking for a little when they have so much. We just want to live in dignity and fight for what we deserve for us and our families.

Sonia Ordonez, a single mother of two from Nicaragua and a cook for six years at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago, summed up her fight against the company: "I don't like that I'm part of a company that treat us like slaves, not just in wages, but in the workload. So we're going to keep on fighting until we get a good contract."

As she continued, "When Hyatt lies in their proposal to try to keep workers from striking, I want to fight against that. They're more powerful, so they try to lie to us. And that's enough for me to keep fighting...I want to tell my story so I can motivate others to keep fighting."

As another striker said, "The labor movement has awakened. It can see that we're under attack. We're organizing, but we need to be mass organized."

To millions of workers struggling with unemployment and underemployment, the Hyatt workers' struggle for dignity and justice is a rallying cry that sends a message of struggle far beyond this strike. Now they need our solidarity.

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