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Housekeepers seek Hyatt board seat 

A protest led by Youngblood downtown in front of the Hyatt Regency demanding a change in working conditions.
  • A protest led by Youngblood downtown in front of the Hyatt Regency demanding a change in working conditions.

Cathy Youngblood spends most of her workdays toiling as a housekeeper inside a hotel. But last week in Indianapolis, she was standing outside one, holding a microphone. In front of the Hyatt Regency downtown, Youngblood addressed a sign-waving, chanting crowd.

"I am a Hyatt housekeeper, and yes, I do windows," she told the group that included community leaders and UNITE HERE union members from Marian University, Butler University, IUPUI, and the Indianapolis Airport. "I clean toilets, too. There is no shame in being a housekeeper, but shame on Hyatt for not wanting to talk to someone like me."

Youngblood is traveling the country as the spokesperson for the "Someone Like Me" campaign that aims to get a hotel worker added to the Hyatt board of directors. "Thousands of housekeepers and cooks and doormen go to work every day for Hyatt, and we are the front lines of the company," she says. "Most of us are women, people of color, or immigrants. Having a real hotel worker on Hyatt's board would benefit the company and the employees both."

So far, Hyatt is resisting the drive to place Youngblood or another worker on the board. In response to a request for comment on the campaign, company spokesperson Katie Rackoff sent a statement. "The call to restructure Hyatt's board of directors is the just the latest publicity stunt in UNITE HERE's campaign against Hyatt," she said.

As the Hyatt response suggests, an active conflict is ongoing between the hotel chain and the union that represents about 30% of Hyatt's hourly workers and aims to obtain contracts for many more, including the workers at the Hyatt Regency here. The signs at last week's rally read, "Hyatt Hurts!" and UNITE HERE has been sharply critical of the company's work conditions and use of temporary staffing agencies that provide low wages and very limited benefits. Last July, UNITE HERE and a coalition of other unions and faith and community groups announced a global boycott of Hyatt hotels. Hyatt has responded by insisting that it provides fair wages and an excellent working environment.

click to enlarge Hyatt hotel worker Cathy Youngblood
  • Hyatt hotel worker Cathy Youngblood

Youngblood has emerged as a national leader of the workers' campaign. A 61-year-old with multiple bachelor's degrees, she works as a housekeeper in a Hyatt-owned hotel in West Hollywood, California. "I am very proud of the work I do. When I finish a room, it is sparkling clean and ready for the next guest to enjoy their stay," she says. "It is good to take pride in your work. "And honey, I am one of the best. You can write that down!"

But that work is enormously taxing, Youngblood and other housekeepers say. They struggle to finish a high quota of rooms during each shift, strain to lift heavy mattresses, and crouch and kneel to clean behind toilets and under sinks. "In this job, you are in pain every day," Youngblood says. "We housekeepers are always exchanging tips on over-the-counter medications like back patches and Ben Gay and Icy Hots." The job could be safer, housekeepers say, if they were provided better tools to work with, such as lighter vacuum cleaners and fitted sheets for the beds.

Youngblood says she has never met a Hyatt manager who has been a housekeeper, so the hotel leadership needs to hear the worker's perspectives. Since early January, she has been on leave from her housekeeper job to tour the country drumming up support for the "Someone Like Me" campaign.

"And I have found commonality with all kinds of workers. We have these jobs, and we are overworked and underpaid," she says. "So what are we going to do about it?"

Youngblood is a slender woman with gray hair and glasses, and has a deliberate, professorial style of speaking. True to her extensive educational background, she invokes history in answering her own question. "I grew up in the civil rights era, and I saw that change can occur if you learn to fight with your mouth and not your fists. It is about being frank and honest in a discussion with your boss without cursing, screaming, or using defamatory language. This is a skill that took me years to develop, so I enjoy sharing my experience with others."

Youngblood and UNITE HERE hope that the Hyatt board of directors meeting on June 10th will be the occasion for a vote to add a worker to their ranks. Hyatt management has shown no signs that will happen, but Youngblood is undaunted. She notes that she has longevity in her family - a grandmother will celebrate her 105th birthday in a few weeks - and she pledges to engage in this effort for decades if need be.

"There is good and evil in this world, and when you see a good fight, you should get in it," she says. "This is a good fight on behalf of working people who need fair wages and a decent working environment."

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