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Hotel California

05 Feb

By: Ricardo Torres

Confessions of a union organizer

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Living’ it up at the Hotel, bringing their alibis and stabbing with their steely knives. Once unions are in, you can checkout, but they will never leave.

Unions historically had a difficult time organizing hotel- and associated service-workers, despite the fact that they are generally paid lower wages and work with higher demands than most other workers. They have a lower level of sophistication when it comes to fighting management without union assistance, but they comprise one of the most resourceful and ready-to-fight categories of non-unionized workers. Bad management have no one but themselves to blame in many situations as they have become complacent in their mistreatment of employees. The ample supply of low-skilled workers feed both of these issues as managers can quickly and easily replace any employee who even appears to be organizing.

Ricardo Torres – President & CEO

Injury Rates among Hotel Workers

Hotel workers have a 40% higher injury rate than other service sector workers. Within hotel workers, housekeepers (most of whom are women) experience the highest injury rates. A 2009 study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine examined the differences in hotel workers’ injury rates by sex, race/ethnicity, job title, and hotel employer. The results of this study show that, among hotel workers:
•Housekeepers had the highest injury rate of 7.9 per 100 worker-years
◦Almost 50% higher than all hotel workers, and even more for the general workforce
•Women hotel workers were 50% more likely to be injured than men.
•Hispanic housekeepers had the highest injury rate of 10.6 per 100 worker-years
◦Higher than all other race/ethnicity groups
◦Almost twice as likely to be injured than White housekeepers
•Injury rates were almost double at three of the hotel employers versus the two others

Contacting the Union

While I was still working as a high-ranking union official, my officereceived a call from workers at a major hotel chain property in California. They wanted our union to assist them in organizing. At the time, hotels were not one of my team’s typical targets, so I was happy to send an area organizer to meet with them and set up a small Internal Organizing Committee (IOC). We needed the IOC to see what would could doand develop a strategy, but only if we felt the issues were strong enough and the workers had enough energy and fight in them to win.

The meeting consisted mostly of housekeepers, all Spanish speaking. We asked them to provide the usual information:
•Employee Handbooks
•Memos from management
•List of benefits
•All correspondence from management
•Any changes in work rules
•List of employee concerns
•Organization chart
•Employees’ information

They delivered everything we asked for and cleared the first of many hurdles of the organizing process. However, we still needed to gauge their intestinal fortitude as fighting and discipline are necessary for asuccessful campaign.

Reviewing the Issues

The housekeepers indicated that workers in other positions were interested in talking with us as well, so we decided to include dishwashers, cooks, servers, bar workers, parking valets, and front deskstaff into the union. There were many issues with each of the classifications of hotel workers; enough that high turnover was resulting from management’s failure to address their grievances.

The restaurant workers were being cheated out of tips and forced to work very erratic schedules. The laundry room equipment was so poorly maintained that malfunctions caused regular injuries, leaving several workers severely burned. Workers faced favoritism and verbal abuse. The Latino workers were ordered to not speak Spanish in front of guests or management, which was difficult as many of them did not speak English.

One of the restaurant workers got locked in a freezer at the end of her shift at closing time. She sat locked in that freezer at temperatures around -10° F for over an hour. She was only let out when another worker saw an item he forgot to put in the freezer and opened the door. The restaurant workers had repeatedly asked hotel management to put in a safety latch inside the freezer. Management said that they would consider the suggestion, but pushed aside any further requests to address the problem. The restaurant workers were forced to develop theirown buddy system to make sure that everyone left work safely.

Housekeepers were required to clean up to 18 rooms per day and take no more than 45 minutes for each room, which caused a high rate of injuries. To meet their quota, housekeepers would often work through their breaks and lunches. Even more pressure was pushed with holidays and “rush rooms”. They also complained that the hotel refused to offer light duty work to those injured on the job. The tipping point of complaints made by housekeepers was amount of sexual abuse/harassment incidents directed at housekeepers by hotel guests. We received stories of how guests would offer money for sexual favors and how guests were inappropriately touching housekeepers. In fact, more than 40% of the housekeepers had complained about harassment from hotel guests.

Showing their Spirit

The biggest issue that wound up rallying all the workers together wasan incident of a non-guest customer who had walked into the lounge in the afternoon. He had a few drinks, then took the elevator to the top floor and then took the stairs down and back up, stopping on each floor to look for a victim.

There were two women working the fifth floor who approached him and asked if he needed help. He said, “No,” but the housekeepers called the front desk to report a “suspicious man walking the floors via the stairs”. However, no one was sent to investigate the situation.

There were only a few rooms left to be cleaned on the third floor dueto a late guest check-out. The man entered one of the rooms and confronted a female housekeeper. He tried to force her into the bathroom. She screamed at him, which caused a guest walking back to comein and check on her. The man fled the hotel and got away without being confronted by anyone.

This enraged the employees, who confronted hotel management about thesafety of their working environment. They wanted security and safety measures implemented. They even provided a list of suggestions like panic buttons and working in teams, and invited management to work with them to start the process to improve conditions.

Enter the Union

Within three weeks of the confrontation with management, 13 housekeepers had been fired for underperformance due to job-related injuries. All suggestions for improving the working conditions were ignored. The workers felt that they had no choice but to call the union as they had no confidence in their bosses and felt that management had acomplete disregard for their health, welfare, and safety on the job.

When we decided to accept the organizing task, we knew that we had tobecome embedded in the hotel, so I decided to float organizers in and out of the hotel as guests. This allowed us to embed ourselves in their work environment and have the greatest effect. We established the IOC and began training them. We set up targets and timelines.

Our initial approach was to take things slowly so that we could builda solid base of support across all of the units. We had the IOC start aseparate committee to direct complaints and issues to management, to keep them from getting suspicious that there was union activity. This provided the IOC the opportunity to discuss problems across all units and build relationships with workers they did not normal associate with.We found some issues were common across the board, while some unit-specific concerns were especially egregious:
•Management abuse by overbearing bosses:
◦used write-ups as a weapon to fire employees they did not like
◦played favorites
◦refused to communicate in Spanish with Hispanic employees, especially with write-ups
•Parking valets were regularly accused of:
◦stealing items from cars
◦causing damage to cars
◦were being overworked through long hours
◦management was taking a percentage of their tips

Before we filed the petition, I brought in eight casual organizers plus three of my full-time organizers to revolve in and out of the hotel. We went to the AFL/CIO Central Labor Council (CLC) to assist us with connecting to a UNITE HERE local union. We reimbursed thelocal union for hiring some of the hotel employees out of their jobs who took leave so that they could also assist us with our organizing drive.

Filing the Petition

Once we reached 62% support, we were ready to file our election petition.

We needed to catch hotel management by surprise, so we arranged a protest walk into the office of the hotel boss on the same day and at the same time as one of my organizers was driving to the NLRB office to file the petition. The reason for the protest walk was to strengthen theresolve of the workers, while, at the same time, scaring hotel management into overreacting and creating Unfair Labor Practices (ULPs).These would give us a greater ability to create a shortage of management resources during their attempts to campaign against the union.

We also arranged our protest walk at the same time as corporate hotelofficers were performing an inspection and the hotel was hosting a Communication Workers of America (CWA) union District LM-2 education training (on Union Financial Disclosure Forms) for its Locals’ officers.This IOC has made signs and at 2:00 PM, we had over 100 employees, bothon and off shift, meet outside the front lobby, where they started chants in both English and Spanish. We had arranged through the AFL/CIO-CLC to have the CWA officers and participants join the workers. About 30 CWA officers started yelling at the hotel manager and told him they would cancel any future business with the hotel until the workers were represented by a union.

Selecting our Targets

With 62% support among the workers, we knew that we needed to concentrate on 1) keeping the supporting workers active and reinforce their dependence on and confidence in the IOC and 2) creating a “hit list” of employees whose support was in question. Our first targets were workers with discipline issues who expressed support for management. The organizers would frame non-union-supporting workers as a way to eliminate obstacles. For us, it was always a “win by any means necessary” situation.

We got master keys from the housekeepers on the IOC and used them to sabotage rooms after targeted housekeepers finished cleaning them. Frontdesk employees who were fighting for the union arranged for guests fromthe AFL/CIO-CLC to check into rooms where our target were working. These guests would also sabotage the rooms and call hotel management to “raise hell” about conditions in the rooms. Complaints included used toilets not flushed; dirty clothes and underwear under the bed; dirty bed sheets, sinks, tubs and other obvious areas. The front desk workers also taught us how to avoid any surveillance cameras.

Car parking valets who supported management would receive complaints of damaged cars and stolen items that they were not responsible for.

We would also send plants into the restaurant sections to frustrate non-union-supporting servers who were on our “hit list”, then complain to management about their service. We even sent in local union retirees in small groups to eat and find management to complain about the servicein front of other customers.

Ten days prior to the election, rodents were let loose in the hotel. About 150 white mice were roaming in the restaurant, bar and throughout the rooms. We called the local Health Department on the hotel. This was yet another strategic tactic designed to preoccupy and overwork management, forcing them to lose focus and waste resources that should have been targeting the campaign.

The hotel hired a law firm that brought in anti-union persuaders to hold meetings to attempt to talk the workers out of voting for the union. In response, I had my organizers use the IOC to push all workers to slow down (work to organizing), doing the bare minimum necessary to avoid firing, but enough for management to recognize that it was an intentional action by a well-organized group of workers.

One of the anti-union persuaders was a Hispanic man who spoke with the housekeepers as they were cleaning the rooms. One of the female housekeepers accused the persuader of inappropriate language and behavior. She filed a harassment charge against the law firm’s persuaderwith hotel management. She also filed a charge with the NLRB and publicly attacked the law firm, which caused a backlash that resulted inthe suspension of one-on-one conversations between workers and the anti-union persuaders. This is exactly what we wanted. We wanted management to lose faith in the team that was there fighting us, while at the same time, providing the workers with another rallying point and raising their emotional investment in the campaign.

Reinforcing the Workers

We arranged for some Hispanic organizations to publicly boycott the hotel for its treatment of employees and demand justice for the sexual harassment. Through the AFL/CIO-CLC and the Hispanic groups, we arrangedfor a march and protest to take place in front of the hotel. Hispanic TV crews were on site to report the event. The AFL/CIO provided a press spokesman who had also trained a few employees on how to give our talking points.

There was one very respected housekeeper who had worked at the hotel for six years and was related to seven other housekeepers. As it turned out, she was moving back to Honduras to reunite with her family. She decided to call off work several days and work slower, claiming it was due to her having injured her back lifting a heavy load of laundry. She also failed to complete her assignments. Our organizers, as well as the housekeeper, knew that this would result in her being terminated. This further upset the other workers to the point that many were crying and most completely lost hope and confidence in the hotel’s management team to make any lasting improvements to the work place. The fired employee spoke to her ex-coworkers everyday on the phone. She was at the hotel every day asking for justice for all the “victims of the hotel’s abusive policies” and providing a “strong voice for the workers moving forward” until election day.

It should be noted in this case that the union had a worker volunteerto fall on her sword for the cause, as she was already leaving anyway. Often, workers would get so wrapped up in the cause that their own actions would result in their being fired. Sometimes, very aggressive tactics were required to accomplish our goals, so we would intentionallyprompt someone who was disposable to the cause risk getting fired with the false promise that the union would get their job back with back-pay.We could occasionally help the worker, but it was never one of our priorities.

On to the Election

As planned, management was being pulled in so many different directions that they lost control of the situation. We were eroding their resources, isolating management supporters from both the union supporters and the hotel management team through our manufactured customer complaints, which the IOC managed to keep secret.

Two days prior to the election, the organizers staying in the hotel purposefully exposed themselves to management. We wanted to further anger and distract them over the last two days. Management demanded my organizers leave, but the organizers refused, and the hotel could not force them out. We had created total chaos for management at the end of the campaign (as well as throughout), and they now know that they had been played and that they were in trouble.

The election was held, and 99% of the workers voted. 83% of those voted for the union. The hotel never stood a chance; you can check out, but they’ll never leave.

What this Means for You

Many management teams simply cannot fathom the extent to which a “good” union organizing team will go in order to win. For a union to winan organizing campaign, they must create an emotional storm, give employees a sense of power over management by working as a concerted group, and create chaos through issues that management cannot ignore. These all pull management’s focus away from the root cause of the problem. In retrospect, there were many stations where the hotel management could have checked out and corrected most of the employees’ concerns and improved the work conditions. But, we did our job well, andmanagement was never able to focus their resources appropriately and can never leave.

Whether you run a hotel, hospital, factory, or any other kind of business, you have inherent weaknesses. The union will search for the weakest point in your defences and stab it with their steely knives withno regard for anything but winning. This is why it is so vital that youknow and understand your employees and your individual weaknesses that unions would target before you are ever hit with a union campaign.

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