OVER 2000 workers rallied in San Francisco for the kickoff of the ‘National Hotel Workers Rising Campaign’ on February 15.
Chanting ‘Si Se Puede’ (Yes We Can) a crowd of over 2000 union members and community supporters at San Francisco’s Parc 55 Hotel launched a national campaign to improve wages, benefits and working conditions in the North American hotel industry.
The ambitions of the campaign are striking, as the goal is not simply to get good contracts for unionised workers in 2006, but to also ensure economic justice for all workers in the traditionally low-paying hotel industry.
As UNITEHERE! Hospitality Industry President John Wilhelm put it, the campaign seeks to ‘recreate the middle class dream,’ replacing America’s lost manufacturing, steel, and auto industry jobs with service jobs that pay a living wage.’
Speakers at the rally included former Senator and Democratic Vice-President candidate John Edwards, UFW President Arturo Rodriquez, actor and activist Danny Glover, UNITEHERE Presidents Bruce Raynor and John Wilhelm, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Change to Win Chair Anna Burger, and hotel workers from Toronto, Hawaii, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Seattle and the host city.
Maids spoke of their daily workload increasing from 10 to 17 rooms without additional compensation, and the increased size of the cleverly named ‘Heavenly beds.’
Many prominent politicians and union leaders were present, but it was actor and activist Danny Glover who got the flashbulbs going and the crowd surging to get a closer look at a real-life movie star. It was noted how Glover was that rare actor who gave back to the community, and Glover then gave a powerful speech in which he called for a worldwide struggle for justice, and identified all workers around the world as his ‘brothers and sisters.’
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom followed Glover, and it is likely that he had never received such a loud ovation from a labor crowd. Newsom stated ‘you cannot live a good life in an unjust society,’ and called rising income inequality in America ‘an outrage’.
Wilhelm noted in introducing Newsom that he ran for office as a ‘pro-business’ mayor, but then sided with the hotel workers when he saw their mistreatment by global corporations.
Change to Win Chair Anna Burger told the rally: ‘I’m here with a simple message. Last year was a year of decision. This year is a year of action.
‘Last year, we decided to debate the future of the labor movement. We decided to sever the bonds that had kept us tied to the past and the AFL-CIO, and we decided to strengthen the bonds that join our 7 unions to one another.
‘This year, we take our united strength – the strength of nearly 6 million members – and turn it to action on the part of working families.’
She added: ‘Every single minute of every day of my life, America has lost two union jobs. . . When large businesses merge, what’s the first thing they announce? Layoffs. Job Losses.
‘But when we decided to come together, we said that it would be accompanied by the opposite: organising victories.
‘And the hotel workers raising campaign is going to be just one of those victories.
‘We need victories like that because right now the deck is stacked against America’s workers.
‘Take a look at California. Since the year 2000, California has been growing more unequal than all but five other states. Today, California has the sixth greatest gaps between the rich and the poor.
‘We always knew this gap weakens America· but now we’ve seen the tragic impact first hand. We saw that when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. When workers in New Orleans – were left to fend for themselves, to live or die as the floodwaters rose because they didn’t have the bus fare or cars to get out of town.
‘Some of them were hotel workers who were denied shelter in the very buildings where they had offered hospitality to so many visitors.’
‘That’s not right. It’s not humane. And it’s not the America we believe in.
‘So how did it happen?
‘The hotel industry used to be local players in local markets. Like so many other industries, it is now dominated by multi-national consortiums. In the last couple of years, that has meant near-record occupancy rates, and for a company like Starwood – billions of dollars in profits.
‘That profit has allowed these companies to invest in some lovely amenities for the guest, but it has also meant squeezing the workers harder and harder.
‘The average bed in many hotels now has at least 20 components – six pillows, a bolster (I don’t even know what that is), a skirt, a comforter, a comforter cover, a scarf, and a duvet that weighs, on average, 23 pounds.
‘Multiply changing a bed like that – 26 times, and cleaning 16 bathrooms and vacuuming and dusting and mopping 16 rooms and doing it in less than a half-hour a room – and what has it meant for the workers? Repetitive motion injuries. Strained backs and arms. A recent study conducted here at UCSF found that three out of four housekeepers experience “very severe” pain. Eighty-four per cent of housekeepers are taking pain medication for injuries incurred at work.
‘Here’s what the study’s author, a doctor, had to say: “Nobody should be working in conditions like that.”
She continued: ‘Low-wage jobs are only low-wage jobs when we allow employers to pay low wages.
‘Back in the 1950s, it wasn’t that the guy on the assembly line who was turning the same bolt over and over had an inherently good job that was valued. It’s that his union and the voice he had through his union insisted on giving that job value.
‘The same is true today. It’s not that the person who cleans an office, or takes care of someone else’s children, or harvests or prepares food isn’t doing a job of value. It’s that our voices, together, are what will make those jobs of value.
‘And so that brings me to the two questions the name of our coalition begs: what will change and what will we win?
‘The campaign that is being kicked off today by the hotel workers isn’t just about walking the picket line. For the rest of our Change to Win unions, it isn’t just about respecting the picket line – it’s about what’s waiting for people at the end of the picket line: the ability to provide for ourselves and our families; health care that is affordable and available; the opportunity to educate our children; the chance to work our way up into the middle class; A retirement of dignity after a lifetime of work.
‘Everybody deserves each of those things. Everybody.’
She continued: ‘Our challenges are great. We can’t sit around and wait for someone else to do it. Not the Republicans. Not even the Democrats. Not big business. As Martin Luther King said, ‘No social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals.’
‘It’s up to us. We’re the someone. We’ve been working for change, but we’ve also been waiting for change. You know what? We’re the people we’ve been waiting for.’