Labor spotlight

Trouble in paradise

Hotel workers strike Marriott-owned properties

Striking hotel workers, who are members of UNITE HERE, picket on Oct. 18 on the UNITE HERE Local 5Striking hotel workers, who are members of UNITE HERE, picket on Oct. 18 on the beach side of two adjacent Marriott-owned hotels, the Sheraton Waikiki and the Royal Hawaiian. The workers in Hawaii ended their two-month-long strike on Nov. 27, when they ratifed a new contract.

Nearly 8,000 hospitality workers took to the picket lines at Marriott-owned hotels in nine major U.S. cities this fall — the latest coordinated multi-city strike wave to hit the country amid skyrocketing inequality.

“The fact that we’re having so many strikes this year is significant,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of Labor Education Research at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, citing fast-food worker strikes and the wave of teacher walkouts.

“The thing that has made the difference,” Bronfenbrenner said, “the thing that has changed is that the rich have gotten so much richer and the wealth gap has gotten so much wider.”

Marriott International is the largest and most profitable hotel company in the world, worth about $49.4 billion, according to Forbes Magazine. The company reported $3.2 billion in profits in 2017 alone.

By mid-November, UNITE HERE, the union representing Marriott workers in the United States and Canada, reached settlements with the hotel company on behalf of its employees in Boston, San Diego, San Jose, Oakland and Detroit. The union is negotiating on behalf of the remaining striking workers in San Francisco and Hawaii.

“I’m on strike because I’m living on a razor’s edge,” said Nicholas Javier, a server at the hotel restaurant at Marriott’s Westin St. Francis in San Francisco. “I’m paying so much money to be able to live and work in this city.”

Javier currently earns $14 per hour, plus tips. The median wage for Marriott workers in San Francisco is $44,000 per year — $20,000 below the minimum pay the city suggests for a household of one adult and one child, says UNITE HERE spokeswoman Rachel Gumpert. Marriott workers’ wages vary from city to city, Gumpert says.

Javier said the hotel chain’s workers want a larger share of the profit their work creates for the hotel chain’s owners. “We’re the ones that make them their billions,” he said. “They say it will trickle down, but it never trickles down.”

The strikers used the slogan “one job should be enough” as many Marriott employees are forced to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

“Marriott is capable of making it true that one job should be enough,” Javier said.

Bronfenbrenner suggests another factor in strikes like these is the contrast between the increasing diversity of the workforce and mostly white management — particularly in the hospitality industry.

“When the boss says ‘trust me’ to a woman of color, ‘someday you’ll make it to the top,’ they look at the top and it doesn’t look like it,” she said.

Relations between Marriott’s workers and management became strained over the summer when contracts for about 12,000 employees at the company’s various chains began to expire. The union saw an opportunity to bring employees’ wages in line with the rising cost of living in each city, but Marriott resisted.

By September, negotiations had broken down and Marriott’s workers voted to strike. After a month of picket lines in front of its most prominent hotels, the hotel company began to reach settlements with UNITE HERE, city by city, to increase pay and other benefits.

In Detroit, Marriott employees are back on the job, and Dave Frassetto, a bartender at the city’s Westin Book Cadillac hotel, is returning to work with better wages and benefits — the union has been reluctant to release details of the settlements — thanks to the strike.

“Health care for my family is going to be far better and cost less,” he said.

Frassetto said one big win was new protections for hotel workers when facing harassment from guests. Housekeeping staff, he said, will be equipped with “technology so they can reach security immediately and get help.”

He said the fruits of the strike were overdue.

“It had been a number of years since we had gained anything financially while medical care costs had gone up exponentially,” Frassetto said. “It was time for the success of the hotel to reach the employees.”

Editor's note: After the New York Teacher went to press on Nov. 27, Marriott workers in both Hawaii and San Francisco reached new contracts and returned to work..

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