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We deserve better: Hotel workers talking union 

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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.

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