We deserve better: Hotel workers talking union 

Keisha Johnson, James Meyers and Sarah Lyons - MARK LEE
  • Keisha Johnson, James Meyers and Sarah Lyons
  • Mark Lee

Keisha Johnson may have missed her bus to work. She has lived for only a month at her current house, a small white-siding rent-to-own she shares with her husband, and she is still learning the IndyGo bus schedules. She steps off the curb and nervously scans the horizon north on Capitol Avenue. Finally, the No.4 comes into view. Sighing with relief, Johnson boards, finds a seat, and begins to put on her makeup.

As the No. 4 enters Downtown, the streets are deserted. It is a weekend morning, so the lawyers and accountants and government employees are not here today. No one has arrived yet to patronize the restaurants or to see a show. But as the bus pulls up in front of the Indiana Statehouse, an overflow crowd awaits. Huddled close together under a plastic shelter and stamping their feet against the unseasonable cold, some wear nametags around their necks, others wear work boots and heavy jackets. Like Johnson, most are wearing work uniforms.

Johnson steps off the bus and heads across the lawn of the Statehouse toward Washington Street. As she reaches the Westin Hotel, she veers past the main entrance, flicks her sweatshirt hood over her head, and walks in the rear door.

Johnson's parents were in the military, and she spent most of her childhood in Germany. After returning to Indianapolis and graduating from North Central High School, she worked in factory jobs and in restaurants before starting as a housekeeper at the Westin in 2007. Her husband is between delivery jobs right now, so they have taken in a roommate to help with the rent. Johnson knows Spanish and a bit of German, and has a bright and ironic sense of humor. ("I get to spend another weekend at the Westin," she laughs.) But her attempt to earn a nurseÕs aide degree was not successful. Her school loan required her to take a full load of classes, but Johnson could not pay the bills unless she worked full-time, too. She was perpetually exhausted, and her grades suffered. She hopes to enroll in online courses soon.

Johnson's title at the Westin is Room Attendant. She starts her workday with a list of assignments for the rooms she is expected to clean, up to 18 in a day. A cart stocked with clean towels and sheets waits for her in the hallway of her assigned rooms. She lugs the 120-pound cart down to the room entrances—no mean feat on thickly carpeted hallways—and knocks on the door. "Housekeeping," she calls.

Johnson is expected to complete a "stay-over" cleaning in just 10 minutes.She will make the bed, change towels, and ensure there is a full supply of soap and shampoo.The process for a "check-out" is supposed to take just 30 minutes, but even an experienced housekeeper like Johnson often takes much longer to clean a room. Johnson tells of rooms with gum stuck in the carpet, melted ice cream welded to the bottom of a trash can, a room where a child got sick in the bed. The housekeeper's nemesis is hair in the bathroom, where it tends to stick to shower curtains and sinks. And it is no fun using a scrub brush to clean a stranger's toilet. "There are crevices in the porcelain, so disgusting things can get into those crevices," Johnson says.

The Westin housekeeper's arsenal does not include a broom or a mop or pails. The cleaning is done on hands and knees. Some of the hotel mattresses Johnson and her colleagues must maneuver weigh more than 100 pounds each. Johnson was a gymnast in high school and is still very fit, and she takes care to stretch her back and hamstrings before she goes to work. But she still wakes up sore most mornings, and she has suffered leg cramps in the middle of the night. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that hotel workers have the highest injury rate of any service industry workers, and a recent union-funded study reported in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine showed housekeepers are at greater risk for injury than other hotel workers. JohnsonÕs older colleagues pop ibuprofen regularly, and Johnson has seen newer housekeepers get fired after they failed to clean their assigned rooms quickly enough. Johnson talks with pride about the attention to detail and people skills she has mastered in her work, but she acknowledges the need for speed, too. She refers to Rip It energy drink, just 99 cents in some stores and packing more caffeine than Red Bull or Rockstar, as "the housekeeper steroid."

The American Dream would suggest that all this hard work must be allowing Johnson to move up the economic ladder. The American Dream would be wrong. Johnson started at the Westin earning $7.50 per hour and just received her most recent raise to $9.27 per hour. She is never assigned a full 40 hours per week. Tips are unpredictable and often meager or non-existent, and Johnson cannot afford the premiums for the cheapest health insurance Westin provides. Although her wages easily exceed the federal and state minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, they are far below the $14 per hour estimate of a living wage, the minimal cost of supporting a two-person family in Indianapolis according to the most recent calculations by the Poverty in America project at Penn State University.

That leaves Johnson in the most vulnerable position in the U.S. economy: too poor to pay all her bills, but with a reliable paycheck for her creditors to garnish. A fall at home last year led to an emergency room visit, five stitches, and a hospital bill she has not been able to pay. She has been evicted for being late on her rent, leading to court judgments. Johnson receives bill collector calls every day. Her student loan debt was eventually collected out of her paycheck for more than a year.Johnson has supported an effort to organize Indianapolis hotel workers into a union, and she testified in front of a City-County Council hearing in June about the use of temporary workers in the local hotels. Wearing a bright red "UNITE HERE" T-shirt, Johnson spoke briefly and clearly into the microphone. But she admitted later that she was rattled by the unexpected sight of her Westin general manager sitting in front of the hearing room. "I was shaking like a leaf," she recalls. "All I could think of is that 'I am going to get fired, fired, fired!'"

She did not get fired, and she continues to support the union campaign. Johnson knows housekeepers in unionized hotels are paid significantly more than she is and have more affordable health insurance. But it is not just about the money. "I have always seen housekeeping as a noble profession," she says. "Someday, I want to be one of those moms who can send kids to college and have all the bills paid. Why can't I do that as a housekeeper?"

James Meyers began working with Unite Here organizers in 2010. - MARK LEE
  • James Meyers began working with Unite Here organizers in 2010.
  • Mark Lee

Digging In

In fact, unionized hotel housekeepers do make incomes that approach the middle-class status Johnson dreams of. Earlier this year, unionized housekeepers in New York City agreed to a long-term contract that includes annual raises that will increase the pay of a typical housekeeper by 29 percent over the life of the contract to nearly $60,000 per year. The labor union Unite Here reports that its member housekeepers in Chicago, who do the same work as Johnson, earn over $5 per hour more than she does. By contrast, Indianapolis is the largest U.S. city without a unionized hotel.

As part of a national "Hotel Workers Rising" campaign led by Unite Here, workers at the Westin and the Sheraton Keystone began meeting among themselves in January 2007. In November of that year, they went public with their desire to unionize.A delegation of workers formally asked to start the process of a "card check" vote, where employees who want the union add their names to a card or form until a majority is reached. (The hotels are on record opposing the card-check vote in favor of a secret ballot process. The hotels say it is more fair, but union supporters say it leaves too much potential for workplace intimidation. Both methods are allowed under federal law, but the card-check process leads to union recognition only if the employer agrees.) A year later, Hyatt Regency workers also made their request to be represented by Unite Here.

Without union contracts to limit outsourcing, hotel workers say the majority of housekeepers in Downtown hotels are not employees of those hotels. Instead, they work for temporary staffing agencies, usually for pay barely above minimum wage and without benefits. The dominant agency in the field is Georgia-based Hospitality Staffing Solutions, or HSS. An industry magazine ad placed by HSS portrays rows of hotel workers—housekeepers, chefs, servers—lined up in a vending machine like bags of chips, ready for purchase. The ad touts the lower hourly wages of its employees and the avoidance of overtime costs. "As the leader in hospitality staffing, weÕre experts at saving clients money," the ad reads.

Eva Sanchez says HSS saves its clients money in part by shortchanging and mistreating its workers.Sanchez worked for HSS in Indianapolis for nearly 10 years, and recently became an organizer for Unite Here. While on the job for HSS at the Westin in 2006 setting up for a banquet, Sanchez was struck in the groin by one of the chairs. She was bleeding and in pain. Sanchez says the manager told her, "This kind of thing happens to you every month down there, so just put a towel on it and get back to work." A coworker took Sanchez to the hospital, where she received stitches and a bill for $1,400. HSS refused to pay it. (HSS did not respond to repeated calls seeking comment for this story.) Earlier this year, the Indiana Department of Labor fined HSS and Hyatt together more than $50,000 for violations of the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Act. The violations included failure to train HSS-hired housekeepers on handling chemical hazards, blood, and needles they may encounter in their cleaning duties, and failure to provide agency worker injury records.

In January 2012, Sanchez and 13 other local hotel workers filed a lawsuit against HSS in U.S. District Court, alleging a sweeping pattern of wage theft and labor law violations. In a 22-page complaint, they alleged they were routinely forced to work off the clock with full knowledge of the hotel management, were regularly paid for less than the full number of hours they worked, and were not given overtime pay as required by law. One of the plaintiffs, Anastasia Amantecatl, claimed that she regularly worked two hours before clocking in at the Marriott Downtown because this was the only way she could clean the required number of daily rooms. According to the complaint, this practice was common for dozens of HSS workers and was endorsed by hotel management. In its response filed with the court, HSS denied the allegations, and the case awaits trial.

Sanchez, Johnson, and their fellow Indianapolis organizers and hotel workers have pursued unionization in part through participation in the national Unite Here campaign and a boycott targeted at Hyatt hotels. But they have focused chiefly on local strategies, including a boycott of the Indianapolis Hyatt Regency that predated the global effort. The local boycott has been honored by organizations like the General Episcopal Convention, the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, and the NFL Players Association. In 2011, Democratic members of the City-County Council introduced an ordinance that called for Downtown hotel workers like Johnson to receive a county tax rebate, amounting to about $200 for most workers. This year, council members proposed an ordinance to prohibit so-called "blacklisting," the practice of hotels refusing to hire employees of the staffing agencies for permanent full-time jobs. The hotels say no such policy exists, but hundreds of staffing agency workers say the rule — written or unwritten — has been used to turn them away when they apply for permanent jobs.

Citing government investments benefiting Downtown hotels, councilors sponsoring the legislation say the hotel workers' plight is a community-wide concern. In recent years, millions of dollars in local tax increment financing supported the building of the J.W. Marriott, promotion of conventions and tourism, and construction of Downtown attractions like the Georgia Street redesign. When the taxpayer support for Downtown development was approved, City-County Council Vice-President Brian Mahern says, local government did not anticipate that hotel workers would be paid so little that they are forced to rely on government-subsidized child care and health care programs. "There have been decades of efforts and investment by the city to build the hotel industry, and we have provided direct and indirect subsidies to do this," Mahern said at a July 2012 council hearing on the anti-blacklisting ordinance. "The community's goal all along was to create good-paying jobs."

Each time these proposals were scheduled for public hearing, hundreds of red-shirted supporters packed the City-County Building's public assembly room and committee rooms. Crowds overflowed into the hallways. The hotel workers who testified were joined by local students, clergy, other union members, and an impressive cross section of community supporters.Downtown marches and a noisy, drum-banging, Super Bowl-weekend demonstration in front of the Hyatt Regency attracted similar support."Give 'em a tax break, too" yard signs popped up around the city when the first ordinance was being considered.

"As a minister, I am mindful that Scripture says, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,'" says Reverend C.L. Day, president of the Concerned Clergy of Indianapolis and a supporter of the hotel workers. "I would not want my neighbor who is a hotel worker to be denied an opportunity for a better life, because I don't want that to happen to me. We gave our tax dollars to these hotels, and those tax dollars should be uplifting our community, not being used to hold people down."

The 2011 worker-tax-break proposal was voted down by the council on party lines. But Democrats gained a majority of the council in the November 2011 elections, and passed the anti-blacklisting ordinance in July of this year. Mayor Greg Ballard quickly vetoed it, issuing a statement that there was "no compelling evidence" that blacklisting was taking place.

Such setbacks are frustrating for the hotel workers, but economist John Schmitt of the Center for Economic and Policy Research says they stand to benefit significantly if they can gain union recognition. Schmitt's research shows that unionization raises service-sector workers' wages by over 10 percent — about $2 per hour — compared to the wages of similar non-union workers. Unionized service-sector workers are also far more likely to have employer-provided health insurance and pension plans. The U.S. labor movement's iconic success stories are in the manufacturing sector, but Schmitt says the same script can be followed to improve the lives of service sector workers like Johnson and Sanchez. "In the early 19th and 20th century, manufacturing jobs were terrible jobs. The jobs paid badly, they were unsafe, and they required brutally long hours," Schmitt says. "But unionization changed all that, and there is every reason to believe that we can see the same effect in the service sector now. The fundamental issue is how are we going to divide the outcome of what is produced. U.S. workers are very highly productive, and unionization helps workers increase their percentage of the value produced, and that leads to higher living standards."

However, recent gains from increased worker productivity have gone to the richest Americans, while worker wages have remained largely flat when adjusted for inflation. As a result, income inequality has skyrocketed to levels not seen since before the Great Depression. Globalization and technology advances have made it easier for corporations to send jobs to countries that allow lower wages and fewer worker protections. U.S. workers seeking a remedy for low pay or outsourcing are unlikely to be able to turn to their union for help: only 7 percent of private-sector workers belong to a union now, compared to 35 percent in the 1950s.

Schmitt is among many who believe that service-sector-unionization efforts like the Indianapolis campaign have the potential to reverse this trend. Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center, also expresses optimism about the local hotel workersÕ campaign. "Hospitality is one of the industries that is profitable enough to pay decent wages and also dependent on jobs that cannot be sent abroad," he says. Lafer is not surprised the Unite Here effort has been going on in Indianapolis for five years with no signs of letting up."That union (Unite Here) has a track record of digging in, not letting go, and having success in the long run," Lafer says.

Sarah Lyons left a job as a barista at IUPUI to work full time with Unite Here. - MARK LEE
  • Sarah Lyons left a job as a barista at IUPUI to work full time with Unite Here.
  • Mark Lee


In early 2010, Sarah Lyons began working as a barista at Caribou Coffee on the second floor of the IUPUI Campus Center. Like the other 70 people preparing and serving food and drinks at Campus Center outlets like Chick-fil-A, Spotz Grille, and Wild Greens, Lyons' real employer was neither the branded restaurants nor IUPUI. Instead, the employees work for Chartwells Dining Services, a division of Compass Group North America.

At first, Lyons liked the job. As a recent college graduate, Lyons enjoyed getting to know professors and students who were regular customers, and she had real admiration for her more experienced coworkers. But it was a struggle to get by on an $8 per hour salary, and when Lyons' car broke down, she could not afford to fix it. Lyons and others, including James Meyers, a former fast-food restaurant manager now working at Chartwells, felt managers did not always treat workers with respect. Lyons and Meyers saw that some of their colleagues were working a two-person job alone. The health insurance Chartwells offered for the employees' families was so expensive that almost no one could afford to enroll. Lyons had been a women's rights activist in college, and she was alarmed at how readily she was acquiescing in unfair treatment. "I just took it," she says. "I hated what I was becoming. I finally concluded, 'This is crazy. We deserve better.'"

Lyons, Meyers, and other Chartwells employees at IUPUI began to talk. Soon, they started working with an organizer for Unite Here. In addition to leading the hotel workers campaign, Unite Here had recently organized food service workers at the Indianapolis International Airport, most of whom are now represented by the union. "I was scared at first," Lyons admits. "But being a part of a team got me past that." Within just a few months, about three-quarters of the Chartwells employees signed cards indicating their desire to form a union. In September of 2011, a delegation of employees, accompanied by several IUPUI professors and students, presented themselves in the Chartwells manager's office and demanded that their union be recognized.

A week later, Chartwells agreed to recognize the union, and bargaining began. The eventual 35-page contract included pay raises, a substantial reduction in employees' health insurance premiums, and the recognition of seniority in promotions and job changes. Meyers and Delbert "Doc" Tardy became shop stewards and now meet regularly with Chartwells managementto discuss workplace issues. Soon after the contract was approved, Lyons left the coffee shop to work with Unite Here organizing the hotel workers. "The way Chartwells works with their employees should be an example for the hotels here in town," she says. "It is a team approach now."

When she recently returned to the Campus Center for a visit, Lyons was greeted with a series of hugs and smiles from her former colleagues. "I am still amazed by what was accomplished here," she says. "People are so much happier, and I saw workers like James (Meyers) become real leaders in our community." In fact, Meyers recently took a leave of absence from Chartwells to help Unite Here try to organize other local food service workers to follow the unionized path of the IUPUI and airport workers.

Meyers comes over to greet Lyons, and the two reminisce about the day they first walked into the Chartwells office to announce they had formed a union.Meyers smiles at the memory. "I felt like I had won a million dollars," he says. "I got to tell the manager, 'You are the boss, I understand that. But I am a man, too, and we can respect each other.'"

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