Calif. Hotel Walk-Off Strike Continues New Wave of Worker Militancy

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In These Times

Calif. Hotel Walk-Off Strike Continues New Wave of Worker Militancy

by
Micah Uetricht

UNITE-HERE union members and allies protest against Hyatt hotel in the streets of Chicago, Ill., on July 22, 2010. (Photo by Jesse Kadj)

The Embassy Suites hotel in Irvine, Calif., bears a number of similarities to workplaces around the country.

Like other workers around the country, employees there say they're getting squeezed.
They're expected to do more with less: fewer supplies, fewer breaks,
and less money. Like the vast majority of American workers, they're not
unionized. Company-wide profits, however, seem to be doing okay.

But in a move rarely seen since the Great Depression, Embassy Suites
workers went on strike early this month over alleged lost wages.
Although as nonunion workers they had few legal rights to protect their
actions, they were united and angry. On August 9, workers walked off the
job and formed a picket line at the hotel's entrance.

It was the latest in a series of bold actions by workers affiliated
with UNITE HERE, the hotel workers union, this summer. In May,
organizers at the Hyatt Regency Chicago were denied access to hotels to
speak with workers; in response, the workers staged a brief wildcat walkout.

Last month, almost a thousand UNITE HERE workers and community supporters were arrested in civil disobedience actions around the country—many
in cities where such actions had not occurred for decades—against the
Hyatt corporation. And now the Embassy workers in Irvine walked off
the job despite a lack of union recognition.

While the action isn't widespread, the Irvine workers have not been
the only ones to strike without official collective bargaining
representation. In July, non-union immigrant workers in Morganton, N.C.,
went on a wildcat strike over work conditions.

Early this year, Roger Bybee asked on this blog why the 2008 Republic Windows and Doors factory occupation
had not inspired an uptick in worker militancy. But looking back on the
past year, it appears a small but increasing number of workers are
willing to use increasingly gutsy actions to take on their bosses.

Workers at the Embassy, which is owned by HEI Hotels and Resorts—the
seventh largest hotel management company in the country, which
according to UNITE HERE raises capital for purchasing new hotels from university endowments—say
anger has been stewing for some time. According to them, the main
issues are not wages—though no one I spoke to made more than nine
dollars an hour—but rather workloads and prohibitively expensive
insurance costs.

Andrew Cohen, a front desk agent who says he has also worked as a
shuttle driver and a phone operator at the Embassy for the past year,
described the hotel as "understaffed horribly." He claims he has been
forced to work through overnight and through legally mandated
breaks—the crux of a $180,000 lawsuit workers have filed against their
employer.

This denial of breaks, says Cohen, was the impetus for workers to
approach organizers. Soon, without official union recogntion, the
workers themselves organized a one-day strike.

"Whether or not they recognize us, we are a union," Cohen said. "We're united. We unionized ourselves."

At 4 a.m. on August 9, workers set up a picket line, catching
management off-guard. They were joined by university students and
members of the local Letter Carriers Union.

David Williamson, a janitor at the hotel for three years, said
management made immediate changes following the strike. "I went six
months without getting a new mop," he said. "Right after the strike,
what do I get? A new mop."

He says his superiors have been friendlier, but he remains wary.
"Every time you see them, they want to give you a hug," he said. "You
just have to be sure they're not reaching behind you and grabbing your
wallet."

Cohen says the workers emerged from the stoppage “victorious.” “We
came back the next day, and they didn’t fire any of us. We started
getting our breaks," he says. "We’ve been better staffed and supplied.”
 
When
management tried to send a temp agency worker home for, according to
Cohen and Williamson, refusing to cross the picket line, workers stood
with her in the housekeeping office, threatening another work stoppage.
Joe Murphy, a houseman in the hotel for the past year and a half,
described the confrontation with their general manager.
 
“We
stared into his eyes and told him that they were going to do the right
thing," Murphy says. "And they did.” The general manager said the worker
could stay.

Strikes by workers without union representation were common during our country's last dire economic crisis. In The Turbulent Years,
a classic history of workers during the Great Depression recently
re-released, the late labor historian Irving Bernstein argued that many
employers saw union recognition as a way to put negotiations with
workers into more "responsible"—read: more conservative—hands.

Union staff, according to bosses' thinking, would restrain the
tempestous masses of workers, preventing them from severely disrupting
production through wildcat or sit-down strikes. And, as the Roosevelt
administration passed more and more labor laws that increasingly
formalized the collective bargaining process, if unions allowed workers
to take more militant actions, they would be slapped with severe
penalties.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, Director of Labor Education Research at Cornell
University, says these days, such actions are "few and far between,"
because they are risky.

She identified several "waves" in the labor movement over the last several decades: the large Pittston Group coal strike in the early 1990s and the "justice for janitors" campaign,
which saw early victories in the 1990s and continued into the 2000s.
Today, Bronfenbrenner points to homecare and hotel worker organizing,
citing them as an "energizer" for the movement.

"But what I don't see," she added "is other unions jumping in. We
need to see a ripple effect of other workers saying, 'We can organize,
too.'"

For their part, the Embassy workers seem to support such an effect.
Argelia Rico, a room attendant who has worked at the hotel for two
years, described her feelings on the picket line.

"I felt happy, I felt free. I was fighting back against all of the
abuses they had committed against us." Rico laughed, then summarized: "I
liked it."

Williamson agreed. While no progress has been made on insurance
costs—and likely won’t be, unless and until workers officially join the
union and negotiate a contract—workload issues immediately improved.
Referring to the strike, Williamson stated, “It’s addictive. And it
worked. I loved it.”

Whether the rest of the movement will join them and create this "ripple effect" remains to be seen.

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