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At World’s Largest Hilton, Workers Fight for Jobs, Daily Cleaning

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This is one of two articles from Hawaiian hotel workers. Read the other, “Hawaiian Hilton Workers Fear Permanent Layoffs As Recall Rights Expiration Nears,” here.

Tourism drives Hawaii’s economy, and housekeepers are the heart of our hotels.

But as tourism is returning to Hawaii, only a few housekeepers are being called back to work because many hotels are not providing daily room cleaning—taking advantage of the pandemic to cut labor costs.

This leaves housekeepers like me, who aren’t called back, enveloped with worries. We’ve been furloughed for 15 months already. Where are we going to find a decent paying job like our UNITE HERE Local 5 union jobs, should we get permanently laid off? How will my family keep our apartment? We can’t go back to my sister-in-law’s two-bedroom apartment where we stayed for eight years when I was still working in a non-union company.

My furloughed co-worker at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Jhorina Ancheta, is a single mom with three kids is a furloughed housekeeper. “If there was daily room cleaning, more housekeepers would be called back to work,” she says. “If I can have my job back, I will be able to support my family the way it was pre-pandemic. We are only able to survive now because my bill and loan payments are deferred until September.”

DIRTY ROOMS HURT

Guests are spending hundreds of dollars a night in our hotel. Their room is supposed to be the cleanest and safest place to be. We, the housekeepers, are in charge of creating this atmosphere. A new study by HospitalityNet on hotel cleanliness shows that 79 percent of respondents are most concerned about their room’s cleaning and sanitation, while 91 percent are more likely to stay at a hotel that helps their employees who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

Pre-pandemic, Hilton was named the number one place to work by Fortune magazine. But at the Hilton Hawaiian Village—the largest Hilton in the world—housekeepers who are currently working are suffering from stress and fatigue.

“It’s harder to clean a filthy room that hasn’t been cleaned every day, compared to a room that is being cleaned every day,” said Maria Luz Espejo, a housekeeper here for 18 years. “Sometimes we can’t finish the rooms in a timely manner, even if we skip our lunch break. I am not getting any younger, so cleaning dirty checkouts makes me suffer with body aches and joint pains.”

Housekeepers are ready to fight for our jobs and safety. We won’t stop until management works with us to resolve this. We will work together, passing leaflets to guests encouraging them to join our call to ask for their rooms to be cleaned daily.

VICTORIES

Smaller hotels like Queen Kapiolani and The Kahala Hotel in Honolulu and Sheraton Maui in Lahaina have implemented daily room cleaning.

The Kahala workers took numerous actions to voice their concerns to management regarding their working conditions, including daily cleaning.

“We found out the hotel was reopening in May 2020,” said Carmelita “Joy” R. Melegrito, a housekeeper at the Kahala. “We demanded regular meetings with management to prepare for the reopening. We had worker leaders in these meetings representing their departments, and I was there representing housekeeping. I shared with them that if we don’t have daily room cleaning, it’s going to be really hard for us to clean the rooms. It will take much longer to clean checkout rooms.

“I’m happy that we have daily room cleaning,” said Melegrito, “because it means less worry about our safety. I got two injuries pre-pandemic because I was rushing to clean a dirty room. If it was already hard before the pandemic to clean rooms, how much more [is it] now if there’s no daily cleaning?”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on July 19, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Nely Reinante is a housekeeper at Hilton Hawaiian Village and a member of UNITE HERE Local 5.


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Hawaiian Hilton Workers Fear Permanent Layoffs As Recall Rights Expiration Nears

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This is one of two articles from Hawaiian hotel workers. Read the other, “At World’s Largest Hilton, Workers Fight for Jobs, Daily Cleaning,” here.

“Did you see Hilton is getting rid of workers permanently?” Jungmin Kim, my co-worker, came running to ask me before I could even get to the front desk. Hilton’s CEO had told investors that when the pandemic is over, Hilton will operate with fewer workers.

My blood was boiling. “They cannot do that!” But she explained that our employer had refused to extend our union contract’s recall rights past two years. Workers who have been laid off since the start of the pandemic now have just 10 months left to win our jobs back.

‘I DON’T WANT MY FAMILY TO BE NEXT’

As Covid-19 started to reach Hawaii in March 2020, more than 2,000 workers received a letter announcing management was closing the Hilton Hawaiian Village (one of the largest hotels in the world, with 3,800 rooms) and Doubletree by Hilton Alana Hotel. We hoped the pandemic would pass and we would return to work in a month. It became more terrifying when months passed and there was still no word.

More than a year later, though Hilton-managed hotels are finally open, only a few of us have been recalled. The rest are scared: of when they will be able to return to work, how they will afford their rent or mortgage, and what they will be feeding their kids should the situation remain the same.

At the Hilton Hawaiian Village, management recently reopened the Wiki Wiki Market, Starbucks, and Starlight Luau after months of workers fighting for union restaurants to reopen. Some food and beverage workers were finally able to return to work.

Unfortunately, there are still workers like Earl Kono, an employee at Tree’s, who was told by his general manager that there are no plans to reopen Doubletree by Hilton’s only in-house restaurant.

“Losing my recall rights frightens me,” said Kono. “I am a single father taking care of my kids and my grandson. Every night, I’m on the verge of breaking down thinking about our future. I’ve been hearing stories on the news about people going homeless, and I don’t want my family to be next.”

The engineers in the maintenance departments are also anxious. Jesus Ragasa, an engineer at the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Alana, is working full-time again. Many of his colleagues, however, remain furloughed. He anticipates double the workload if there continue to be only three full-time engineers, instead of the eight engineers pre-pandemic.

FIGHTING FOR EXTRA TIME

An extension of recall rights would give the furloughed workers extra time to fight for their jobs back, especially when hotels return to full occupancy. If workers who were laid off in the beginning of the pandemic are not recalled by March 2022, Hilton might end these positions permanently.

Meanwhile, workers at other union hotels represented by UNITE HERE Local 5—such as the Ala Moana Hotel, Modern Honolulu, and Waikiki Beach Resort—fought for and already won one more year of recall rights.

Jason Maxwell, a bartender at the Modern Honolulu, organized his co-workers to demand an extension from Diamond Resorts, the timeshare company that owns and operates his hotel.

“When we would get management to Zoom meetings, we would load the call with about 40 workers,” he said. “We made sure they listened to the concerns of workers directly.”

“Management tried to hide their anger, but the Diamond Resorts guy began panicking and hung up because of the number of workers on the call. The meetings lasted hours, because we brought up other issues like workplace safety.

“We also passed out leaflets to guests and conducted safety inspections to make sure management was implementing the proper safety procedures in the middle of a pandemic,” added Maxwell. “At some point, management tried to block us from coming onto property. We stood firm and kept going.”

Maxwell said he was close to achieving his dream of buying a home for his family pre-pandemic. “[Winning] the recall rights extension gave me hope. It gave our union a chance and time to fight. If they do bring jobs back, then the same workers come back,” he said, relieved that the pandemic was not the end of his dreams.

WE WANT OUR JOBS BACK

There is a false narrative that workers are living comfortably off unemployment and do not want to return to work. In reality, we are struggling and on the edge of our seats, frightened for the future. We desperately want our hotel jobs back.

“We have to stick together and fight for our jobs,” said Kono. “We have to organize and push our managers to do something about this.

“Extending isn’t going to cost them a penny, so why is it so hard for them to agree with us and give us peace of mind?”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on July 29, 2021.

About the Author: Aina Iglesias is a front desk worker at the DoubleTree Alana by Hilton and a member of UNITE HERE Local 5.


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Nevada hospitality workers get ‘right to return,’ this week in the war on workers

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Wage theft is a huge problem that requires a creative solution, this week  in the war on workers | Today's Workplace

Nevada’s “right to return” law has gone into effect, requiring employers to rehire many hospitality workers laid off during the pandemic to their original jobs, or equivalents, as those jobs become available again. Workers will get 24 hours to decide whether to accept a job, and must be available to start within five days.

The non-union Station Casinos, however, are dodging the law for some positions, claiming that the law is just so complicated that they cannot figure out how to recall people to jobs in the right order, so as a result, Station won’t be filling some jobs at all. (The company has recalled 1,500 workers.) In case you were wondering about the motivation here, the company issued a statement about its decision attacking the Culinary Union.

Meanwhile, the workers who’ve long had good jobs in the Las Vegas hospitality industry just want their jobs back.

“I only want to work,” said one worker affected by Station’s decision. “I want all I lost in this time. I want to get it back.”

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on July 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a full-time staff since 2011, currently acting as assistant managing editor.


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Dueling accounts of a hotel job fair offer a choice: Blame lazy workers, or lousy jobs

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Interview with Laura Clawson, Daily Kos Contributing Editor | Smart  Bitches, Trashy Books

As [more] states cut off added federal unemployment aid to millions of workers, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are on the spot with dueling takes on the effects of the cut-offs. The picture you get of the situation in Missouri—one of the earliest states to end the benefits, on June 12—is very different depending which newspaper you’re reading. But when you dig into the details, it gets interesting.

The Times opens at a job fair with few job applicants, and notes, “Work-force development officials said they had seen virtually no uptick in applicants since the governor’s announcement, which ended a $300 weekly supplement to other benefits. And the online job site Indeed found that in states that have abandoned the federal benefits, clicks on job postings were below the national average.”

The WSJ opens “The number of unemployment-benefit recipients is falling at a faster rate in Missouri and 21 other states canceling enhanced and extended payments this month, suggesting that ending the aid could push more people to take jobs.”

Hmm, okay … What does that “push” look like? 

One woman interviewed by the WSJ has just had her federal unemployment benefits cut off and is scrambling to find food for herself and her two children. But taking a low-wage job would cause her to lose the health insurance still being covered by the corporate-travel agent job that furloughed her during the pandemic. She’s hoping to be recalled to that job, but in the mean time, the unemployment aid cut-off means she’s turning to food pantries.

Is this supposed to be the face of those lazy people taking unemployment benefits because they don’t want to work? Someone whose previous job valued them enough to pay for health coverage through a long furlough, who doesn’t want to lose that benefit in exchange for minimum wage and no benefits?

The greatest moment, though, comes when you realize that the two newspapers reported on the recent hiring success of the very same hotel. According to the WSJ, hotel company Midas Hospitality had a recent uptick of applications in Missouri, in particular at the Element Hotel in St. Louis, at the time of the unemployment aid cut-off. 

Here’s the Times on the very same Element Hotel: “The hotel, which is on a major bus line, raised its starting wage to $13.50 an hour, the second increase in two months. It also offers benefits and a $50-a-month transportation allowance. The number of applicants shot up—to 40 from a handful the previous month—after the second wage increase.”

What. Do. You. Know. They raised pay and applications increased. The state’s minimum wage is $10.30 an hour, so $13.50, while still not a living wage for a single person in St. Louis, is a substantial boost over the minimum.

A woman interviewed by the Times, who was offered a job on the spot at the Element Hotel job fair and took it, already had a job as a housekeeper at a hotel near the airport, forcing her into a two-bus commute that took up to four hours on weekends. But if you read the WSJ, all you hear is that “several” of the people who were offered jobs at that job fair had been unemployed for at least six months. There’s no word on what those people’s stories were or how they would explain their choice to take that $13.50 an hour, benefits, on a major bus line job offer at this moment in time.

The U.S. economy is in recovery from a precedent-shattering, historic pandemic. No one really knows what path economic recovery will take, and many stories can be told about what is happening at any given moment. It’s clear that lots of workers are looking for a better deal than they’ve gotten in recent years—and, in some cases, finding it as employers scramble to staff back up quickly. It’s a certainty that some workers will be pushed into taking lousy jobs by the unemployment aid cut-off—but how much suffering will result?

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on June 28, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a full-time staff since 2011, currently acting as assistant managing editor.


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Unemployment Benefits Protect Seasonal Workers

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Sheila Regan (@Sheila_Regan) | Twitter

The Wisconsin state legislature wants to slash unemployment benefits. Seasonal workers rely on that money as job opportunities fluctuate throughout the year.

This article is part of The Wisconsin Idea, an investigative reporting initiative focused on rural Wisconsin.

Troy Brewer was pleased when the Milwaukee Bucks made the playoffs this year, and not just because he’s a big fan of the basketball team. 

Brewer works as a cook in Fiserv Forum, the arena where the Bucks play. He’s been there since the arena opened in 2018, and helped start a union there in the same year, the Fiserv Forum and Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization (MASH). The union’s contract ensures that Brewer and his coworkers make at least a $15 wage, and because of Brewer’s seniority, he’s at the top of the list whenever there’s work. 

But after the playoffs, the work schedule gets a little light. 

“I’m most definitely worried,” Brewer said. ?“Recently, we have emails saying we don’t have a schedule set for July, like there might not be any work.”

The backup for Brewer and workers like him, who work in fields that haven’t fully returned from the pandemic, is unemployment insurance.

Back in March of 2020, Congress passed the CARES Act, which in addition to other relief measures, supplemented the state’s unemployment benefits by $600 a week, a number which was halved in January. In March 2021, Biden signed the American Rescue Plan, which continued the $300 supplement, set to expire on September 6. Since then, 25 states, mostly in the South and Midwest, have announced their intention to stop accepting the federal subsidy. 

In Wisconsin, the legislature has voted to reinstate work search requirements for people receiving unemployment insurance, and declined Governor Evers’ proposal to add $15 million to the state’s unemployment system, as well as a proposal to add $28 million to worker training programs. Meanwhile, Republicans in the legislature have made moves to eliminate the $300 supplement from the federal government for UI. “It’s hard times out here right now, especially for the people in our work.”

Governor Tony Evers has questioned the logic that ending additional unemployment insurance would solve the labor shortage problem in the state, which predates the pandemic. ?“We had trouble finding people to come to work before the pandemic, during the pandemic, and after the pandemic,” he told the press on June 1. ?“I just feel confident that the people that are receiving unemployment compensation with an unemployment rate now that is similar to before the pandemic, need those resources to live on,” he said. 

But so far, the Governor hasn’t stated definitively that he would veto the Republican measure. ?“I will take a look at it,” he said when asked whether he would veto the bill. 

Brewer, who has two kids at home, says that he needs that extra boost. He just found out that his landlord is selling his house, so on top of everything, he has to find a new place to live. ?“It’s a good thing we do still get unemployment to help us stand a little better than what we usually would.” 

Lauren Stevens, another worker at the arena, feels a similar anxiety. Stevens is a retired educator, and has used her job doing concessions to make ends meet. The basketball season starts up again in the fall, so after the Bucks’ playoff run, there won’t be work again until the new season. Stevens and other workers will be able to use unemployment benefits until then, but only if the legislature doesn’t cut off the federal supplement. 

“I’m concerned?—?reason being I’m retired, on social security and this is a part time position for myself,” Stevens said. ?“I’m a little concerned with this gap.” 

Much of the discourse around getting rid of unemployment insurance centers around the notion that the benefit discourages people from returning to work. That conclusion isn’t born out in research on the subject, though. In ?“A Short Review of Recent Evidence on the Disincentive Effects of Unemployment Insurance and New Evidence from New York State, University of Chicago professors, who studied an increase in unemployment insurance in New York, found only a slight propensity for people on UI to continue benefits when they increased.

More recently, a study by a group of Yale economists found that there was no evidence that the $600 a week benefit provided by the CARES Act disincentivized people from returning to work. 

“Unemployment rates in Wisconsin don’t support the overdrawn and quite dramatic, self serving conclusion that there are a bunch of people sitting on the sidelines who are ready to go to go to work in otherwise low wage, no benefit, insecure, crappy jobs if $300 a week, supplemental unemployment benefits were eliminated,” said Peter Rickman, president of MASH. At the same time, Rickman sees the current economic landscape as an opportunity for workers. ?“The way the labor market is constructed right now is such that the balance of power instead of being wholly and entirely in favor of the boss class, has had a slight tipping towards the working class,” he said. 

Senator Melissa Agard (D?16th District) argues that cutting UI won’t put people back to work as much as it would harm struggling families. ?“It’s really unfortunate that my Republican colleagues in Wisconsin are continuing down the same path that they were on pre-pandemic: making it harder for people to be able to get ahead and take care of themselves and their families,” Agard told In These Times. ?“Folks are having a hard time finding people for jobs primarily because they’re not paying people a living wage, or respectable wage to do those jobs.”

Agard feels concerned the pandemic has only exacerbated the wealth gap that was in place before COVID-19 hit. ?“In my opinion, we should be learning about how it is that supporting people actually provides them with a step up for themselves and their families in our future,” she said. 

For Debbie Steidl, who normally does stagehand work for touring Broadway shows at the Marcus Performing Art Center (PAC) in Milwaukee, the end of the expanded unemployment benefits won’t necessarily spell financial doom. That’s in part because years in the business as a union member, and support from family and friends, left her in a good position to make it through the pandemic year.

In addition to other theater work, Steidl, who is a member of IATSE Local 18, had been in show business for 35 years when theaters across the country closed down due to the pandemic, bringing her work to a screeching halt in March 2020.

“I just reached the point on my seniority level where I have steady income, where I can actually plan things and all of a sudden, the rug is pulled out from under me,” Steidl recalled. ?“I was very angry.”

Fortunately, the PAC had just put on a showing of The Lion King, so she lived off the income she made from that last show before hunkering down. 

Since the shutdown, Steidl has gone to work for a few events, such as the Democratic National Convention. ?“There were little bits here and there, jobs not enough to support myself, but enough to keep me interested in my job,” she said. When not taking short-term gigs when they come, Steidl has taken unemployment, but she feels optimistic about her financial situation as theater begins to come back later this season. 

“Some of the riggers and foreman of the Union are already going into the Summerfest grounds,” Steidl said. ?“We just had a union meeting a couple days ago, and they said that things are going to start looking up, like towards the end of July and August. So we’re being hopeful.”

On June 9, the Wisconsin legislature voted to end contracts for federal employment benefits beginning the earliest week the measure is passed. That depends on Evers signing the bill. 

As for Brewer, he has hope, but the crisis is not over. ?“It’s hard times out here right now, especially for the people in our work,” he said. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 14, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: SHEILA REGAN is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis. She has covered news for the Guardian, the Washington Post, and Salon, as well as the Sahan Journal, The Uptake, and other publications. She also
writes about the arts.


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U.S. added 559,000 jobs in May and unemployment dropped to 5.8%

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Interview with Laura Clawson, Daily Kos Contributing Editor | Smart  Bitches, Trashy Books

After a disappointing April jobs report, May looked significantly better with 559,000 new jobs added to the economy, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s still a little short of the 650,000 jobs analysts predicted, but unemployment ticked down from 6.1% to 5.8%, the lowest since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020. “America is on the move again,” President Joe Biden declared in response to the report. “No other major economy is gaining jobs as quickly as ours, and none of this success is an accident,” he said, crediting the American Rescue Plan with boosting the recovery.

The Economic Policy Institute’s Elise Gould described the overall report as “a promising sign that the recovery is on track.” Gould continued, ”If this pace continues over the next year, we will likely get down to 4% unemployment by mid-2022 and will be fully recovered before the end of 2022, fully absorbing losses plus population growth.” 

Another piece of good news is that women gained jobs after losing massive numbers of jobs throughout the pandemic, accounting for 56.2% of the new jobs in May. It’s just a start—women would need to gain jobs at that rate for 13 months straight to get back to where things stood in the before times, according to the National Women’s Law Center—but a start is better than another month of continuing to fall behind. Women’s labor force participation rose from 57.2% in April to 57.4% in May, still behind the February 2020 rate of 59.2%.

Nonetheless, there are still 7.6 million fewer jobs than in February 2020, with a total jobs gap of at least 8.6 million (to account for jobs growth that would normally have happened since then).

Once again, in contrast to the claims that restaurants are having trouble finding workers because of high unemployment benefits, the hospitality industry had big growth, adding 292,000 jobs. And while wages rose in hospitality, a possible sign of a labor shortage, EPI’s Heidi Shierholz notes that “the wages of typical workers in leisure and hospitality plummeted in the recession and have largely just regained their pre-COVID trend—i.e. they are now in the ballpark of where they’d be if COVID had never happened.” Josh Bivens had previously argued that rising wages in restaurants are consistent with the return of tipping customers, and may therefore not even represent higher wages being paid by employers.

There’s a long way to go, and too many people are still without jobs—remember that 7.6 million jobs are missing just from what existed in February 2020—as Republican governors make the political, not economic, decision to cut off the $300 weekly federal unemployment benefits supplement because supposedly that $300 is what’s keeping people from looking for work (even though it’s not). That’s increasing the suffering across the country even as people show, month by month, that they are looking to get back to work.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on June 4, 2021 Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a full-time staff since 2011, currently acting as assistant managing editor.


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The Dream of a Unionized New Orleans Is Coming True

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Writers Guild of America Honors Hamilton Nolan for Digital Organizing -  Variety

The pandemic was the first big test for New Orleans’ hospitality unions. They passed with flying colors.

Drago’s, the sea food restaurant inside the over 1,600-room Hilton Riverside hotel, advertises itself as the inventor of charbroiled oysters, a claim too good to check. Trinice Dyer, a New Orleans native, has worked there as a server for 12 years. When Dyer and her colleagues lost their jobs at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Hilton let employees use up their banked paid time off; after that, they were on their own.

“When the days turned to weeks, and the weeks turned to months, I’m like, OMG,” Dyer remembers. Coworkers scrambled to apply for jobs at Walmart or Amazon. Dyer pulled from her savings to help pay her son’s college tuition. After a year out of work, she was finally recalled in March 2021. ?“It was just faith, grace and mercy that got me through it,” she says. 

Nationwide, the hospitality sector is the industry hardest hit by the pandemic.

Dyer and her colleagues got their jobs back because the New Orleans Hilton is unionized, affiliated with Unite Here Local 23 since 2017. The leap of faith required to unionize the hotel, Dyer says, was scary, but she decided to support it. ?“What do we have to lose?” she thought. ?“I want to be heard. Before the union they wasn’t hearing us. It’s ?‘do as I say, not as I do.’ We wanted to be valued. We wanted to be respected.” 

That risk paid off in raises, in protection from capricious firings and, now especially, in ?“recall rights”?—?the guarantee that laid-off workers will be offered their old jobs back if the jobs become available.

Dyer and her coworkers are part of what has quietly become one of the most noteworthy projects to build union power in the South: Unite Here’s ongoing work to unionize the famous New Orleans hospitality industry.

***
As Americans slowly emerge from the pandemic and begin to travel again, one of the most vital issues for hospitality workers nationwide has become recall rights. Without that guarantee, companies are able to staff back up with new, cheaper workers, leaving longtime employees behind.

Unite Here says those who lose their jobs without recall rights typically see their wages decline 12%. For older workers, that figure is more like 35%.

“A lot of our members have worked on their jobs 30-some years,” Marlene Patrick-Cooper says. ?“Recall is what really, truly matters.”

Patrick-Cooper is president of Unite Here Local 23, a gregarious woman who could have been designed in a lab to be perfectly suited for the job. Raised in the small city of Jeanerette in southwest Louisiana with a father who was a union shop steward, Patrick-Cooper followed an aunt to Las Vegas in the mid-1980s to go to school, and started looking for work. “[My aunt said] said, ?‘Make sure you march down to that union hall and get a union job, and you don’t look for work nowhere else.’ Because there was a standard that had been set.”

Patrick-Cooper learned her craft in the city that is the model for what a unionized New Orleans hospitality industry could one day look like: Las Vegas. She worked for Unite Here’s mighty affiliate, the Culinary Union, which has organized virtually the city’s entire casino industry. That union is the best example in America of successful wall-to-wall organizing to build economic and political power for working-class people in a tourist city. (That power, in fact, can reach across the country. Unite Here used its clout with gaming companies in Vegas to make them agree not to fight organizing efforts at the casinos in New Orleans and Biloxi.)

In 2014, after stints in other cities around the country, Patrick-Cooper got her chance to prove what could be done in New Orleans. She took over leadership of Local 23, which sprawls across much of the South, with chapters from Washington, D.C., to Texas. ?“The union was beginning to put resources into organizing the South,” Patrick-Cooper says. ?“And me being from the South, I wanted in.”

Thanks to the efforts of Local 23, New Orleans has become one of the most noteworthy enclaves of union power in the South.

As a city, New Orleans is sui generis, a more than 300-year mashup of African, European and Native American cultures that exists nowhere else in America. As a place where people wake up and go to work, it has more familiar characteristics. The city is situated in the deep South, in a so-called right-to-work state (less than 6% of working people are unionized) with a state legislature eager to squash anything that might be considered progressive. It is 60% Black, and the average Black household earns less than half as much as the average white household. It is a tourist economy, with nearly 20 million visitors a year fueling a $10 billion hospitality industry that touches every part of the city, directly or indirectly. And since the utter devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans has been spectacularly revived as a (wealthier, more unequal) tourist destination.

Local 23 has been quietly toiling for years to win the working people of New Orleans enough power to command a fair slice of that tourist economy. In a 20-minute stroll, a visitor can walk past the sprawling Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (which looms just off the Mississippi River), then by the cruise ship terminal, then past the nearby Hilton Riverside (one of the biggest hotels in town), hang a left on Poydras Street and pass Harrah’s (the city’s only non-riverboat casino) and end up at the Loews Hotel on the next block. Employees from all of these properties, more than 1,400 workers total,
have unionized with Local 23, the organized labor equivalent of capturing an entire corner on a Monopoly board.

The union, whose membership is 90% Black and 65% women, also represents about half of the food service workers at the New Orleans airport, and 1,700 workers in nearby Biloxi, Miss. It is now possible to fly into New Orleans, attend a convention, stay at a hotel and take a casino day trip without leaving Unite Here properties.

The Covid-19 pandemic?—?a disaster that is, at least in the short term, comparable to Katrina in economic effect?—?has put all of that work to the test.

***

Because Unite Here’s membership is concentrated in hotel, airport and casino workers, the union has been economically ravaged by the near total shutdown of travel and tourism during the pandemic. At the early peak of the lockdowns in April 2020, the union’s membership was 98% unemployed. Today, member unemployment is still 60?–?70%, according to Unite Here’s international president, D. Taylor. In New Orleans, the numbers have been similar.

With members laid off across the country, Unite Here had to adjust tactics by location to secure vital recall rights. In politically friendly areas, the union is pursuing state or local legislation guaranteeing recall rights for both union and nonunion hospitality workers. Unite Here won that legislative battle statewide in California and a host of major cities, including Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Providence, R.I. Unite Here is still fighting for legislation in Nevada, Minnesota and Connecticut, and a long list of other states.

In politically hostile areas like Louisiana?—?where the state legislature eagerly overrides worker-friendly legislation, such as minimum wage increases?—?Unite Here directly negotiated recall rights with employers, despite facing an existential threat. Though the Unite Here national office sent financial reserves to help tide over local chapters, union staffers themselves faced layoffs when member dues suddenly dried up. Before the pandemic, Local 23 had an organizing staff of eight; today, it is down to three.

The bulk of Unite Here’s organizing in New Orleans happened after the 2008 recession, meaning the pandemic has been the first major economic shock most members have lived through as union members. Even as it lost staff, Local 23 had to transform itself into what Patrick-Cooper describes as ?“a social service beacon.” The union turned its focus to helping newly laid off union members navigate the state’s broken unemployment system. It created a hotline for members to call for assistance, ran a food bank and searched everywhere for fundraising, all while marshaling support for Unite Here’s massive national door-knocking campaign in support of Joe Biden’s presidential run?—?and fighting for extended recall rights for workers.

Despite the obstacles, Local 23 reached agreements in New Orleans with all of its employers not covered by national contracts to recall workers for two years. Union officials say the negotiations were not especially contentious, a sign that, as in Las Vegas, major hospitality employers in New Orleans have come to accept Unite Here as an entity easier to work with than fight.

The union also renegotiated a contract with Harrah’s in late March that extended recall from 12 months to 24. The union says the casino was willing to grant the extension to preserve its experienced workforce, a crucial provision for the slice of employees who have yet to be called back?—?and have already been out of work for 14 months.

Dora Whitfield, a server in Harrah’s casino buffet, just celebrated (from home) her 20th anniversary as a Harrah’s employee. Whitfield has been on furlough since March 2020. Her income is $247 per week in unemployment money from the state of Louisiana. She used to be able to make almost that much on a single weekend day at work.

Though Whitfield had no union experience before Harrah’s organized in 2014, she was appointed as a shop steward three years ago because of her reputation for fearlessness in talking to everyone. ?“Down South, I feel like a lot of us should know about unions but [don’t],” Whitfield says. ?“I’m like, ?‘Why we never knew about this here?’ You have to learn how to get out and let people know there is a union in New Orleans in hospitality.”

The disdain for broad worker protections coming from conservatives in the Louisiana statehouse may, ironically, backfire on the legislators. Everyone in New Orleans can plainly see union members are the only working people who won guaranteed recall rights, which only increases the incentive for everyone else to unionize.

“In Southern states, sometimes the laws are not really on our side,” says Leah Bailey, a Local 23 research analyst. ?“So having that union contract is everything.”

***

The economic recovery in New Orleans has been as slow and painful as the national vaccine rollout. The city’s tourism bureau says that, from January to the end of March, hotel occupancy downtown ranged from 20% to 49%. Mardi Gras was canceled, though Jazz Fest, the city’s other major festival, has been rescheduled from spring to October. In late April, crowds in the French Quarter were less than half of the usual hordes. Tarot card readers sat bored at their folding tables in Jackson Square; the few jazz bands playing for tips on the street corners faced little competition in hearing distance.

Every hospitality worker who is called back to work this year will have suffered. But those who were in a union at least suffered less uncertainty.

For workers looking to have a surreptitious meeting with a union organizer, Ernst Café, a sprawling bar and grill that occupies a corner of the warehouse district just a few blocks from the Mississippi River in downtown New Orleans, is well known. The tables that line the outside are a convenient place for anyone who works at the nearby hotels, convention center and casino to sit and talk. From there, an entire city is slowly being transformed.

On a humid weekday morning in April, Willie Gordon rests an elbow on one of those tables an hour before his shift begins at the Loews Hotel a block away. He has the dapper look and unflappable demeanor one might expect of someone who spent 18 years as the hotel’s bell captain, leading all of the bellhops and valets (before the pandemic, there were 15; just four remain.) Before that, Gordon worked for 10 years as the bell captain at the nearby Westin Hotel. There, he says, ?“employees would run” when a union organizer came around, mostly out of fear of a general manager Gordon still recalls bitterly, 18 years later.

“He would talk about what he could do, [how] ?‘I can fire you on the spot,’ ” Gordon remembers. ?“He would say he was joking, but no one took it as a joke.”

The vast majority of hotels in New Orleans were nonunion until 2004, when?—?shortly after the Loews Hotel opened?—?Gordon and other employees unionized with Unite Here. Gordon is now a shop steward. When problems arise?—?like the time an overeager salesperson tried to hand out group discounts that cut into the bellhops’ pay?—?Gordon gets things straightened out in a single conversation. When the men he works with ask how he did it?—?he refers to the bellhops always as just ?“my guys”?—?he points across Poydras Street toward the still nonunion Westin, then says, ?“Here’s the difference between us being here, and us being over there.”

***

New Orleans is a city whose raffish charm is partially rooted in its chaos. Where Las Vegas has a single, gleaming strip of enormous properties that dominate its hospitality industry, New Orleans has fewer big players and far more small operators and hustlers. That makes the city ?“a hard nut to crack” for a union dreaming of an organized hospitality sector, according to local labor historian Thomas J. Adams. ?“Most people still work for relatively small shops, or work at the franchise level,” Adams says. ?“In that way, New Orleans looks more like a lot of the country.”

The fragmented nature of the New Orleans hospitality industry means that Local 23 takes on an enormous civic importance as one of the only institutions capable of raising standards across the industry. On the other hand, it also means the majority of people whose livelihoods depend somehow on the tourist trade will probably never be union members.

There will always be a role in the city for groups willing to organize in the space outside of traditional unions?—?and there is comradery and cross-pollination between union and nonunion spaces.

Gabby Bolden-Shaw moved to New Orleans in 2009 and got a job at the convention center. She got involved with the union and eventually became the lead shop steward. She was so good, in fact, that Unite Here offered her a job as an organizer in 2019?—?but she was furloughed only months later, after the pandemic drained the union’s finances. But she found another way to support workers.

In August 2020, Bolden-Shaw got a new job with Step Up Louisiana, an activist group focused on local labor and political organizing. Now, she does some of the same work the union does?—?such as helping people file for unemployment during the pandemic?—?but on behalf of people who aren’t union members (as well as some who are). Among the workers she helps now are some who were at the convention center as independent contractors, people who were working alongside Unite Here members but who were unable to join the union.

One of those contractors is Will Walker, who moved to New Orleans from California three years ago and worked as a bartender for splashy events at the convention center and the Superdome. Since facing abrupt unemployment in February, Walker has channeled much of his energy into organizing and attending rallies with Step Up?—?to the horror of some he used to work with.

“They were trying to explain to me that this wasn’t gonna get better, because … this is how they operate in Louisiana,” says Walker, who is Black. ?“You have no voice. Once you speak out like you do in California, you may come up dead, hurt or missing. People that I worked with actually thought I was crazy to put myself out there.”

***

The explanation most often given for the weakness of unions in the South is that the vast majority of the South is right-to-work, which makes it harder to build and maintain union membership. But Nevada is also a right-to-work state, which hasn’t stopped Unite Here yet. There is no reason the union’s model cannot translate to the South, and Unite Here’s international president, D. Taylor, says New Orleans can ?“absolutely” be transformed by the union in the same way Las Vegas has.

“I didn’t take this job to be satisfied with what we did in Las Vegas,” Taylor says. ?“New Orleans is a perfect example where the only difference in the living standards for workers in the industry is our union.”

“We’re very interested in organizing the South, period. You change the South, you change America.”

For Unite Here, the ironclad union power they have built in Las Vegas?—?a power that has given tens of thousands of service workers a middle-class life?—?is a tantalizing promise of what New Orleans might become. To dream, just cast your eyes skyward. Next to the unionized Hilton Riverside, a glimmering 34-story Four Seasons is nearing completion. Marriott and Sheraton towers loom large. The iconic Hotel Monteleone sign casts a shadow over the French Quarter. The wraparound porches of the Omni sprawl lasciviously off Bourbon Street. The road to union power in New Orleans runs through properties like these. Control the jewels of the hospitality industry, and you can pull up the standards for the entire city.

Marlene Patrick-Cooper agrees. ?“You want them all,” she says, smiling. ?“It’s like a snake eating his big apple. A snake’s gonna eat that apple. But he’s going to eat it one bite at a time.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 26, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere.


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Philadelphia City Council votes to protect laid-off hospitality workers. More cities need to follow

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The coronavirus pandemic has devastated the hospitality industry, with the fallout still growing. This week the Philadelphia City Council took steps to protect workers when the economic recovery begins, unanimously passing legislation to give laid-off hospitality workers the right to be rehired when jobs start coming back. 

The bill could eventually help 12,000 Philadelphia hotel housekeepers, stadium attendants, airport food workers, and more. The Black Workers Matter Economic Recovery Package requires employers to offer laid-off workers jobs in order of seniority within their departments, with protection for cases where a contractor at a larger venue changes or a hotel changes ownership.

”This legislation protects our industry’s workers from any unscrupulous employers who might dare to use this pandemic to further their financial interests … at the expense of long-term employees who are overwhelmingly Black and are overwhelmingly female,” said UNITE HERE Local 273 President Rosslyn Wuchinich.

That’s a blow workers at Boston’s Revere Hotel are feeling right now—and legislation they could use from Boston lawmakers. Back in May, when HEI Hotels and Resorts furloughed the workers, it assured them, “Your date of hire will remain the same, since HEI recognizes your past service at the hotel.” But in November, HEI sent a different message: “We will be using the end of this year, December 31, to rescind earlier messaging on rehiring employees who were employed at the hotel prior to the HEI Hotels and Resorts transition,” a letter from human resources said. But hey, “when business does return to our hotel later in the year, we will post job openings to the public and if you are interested in applying at that time we will be happy to consider your application as a potential new hire.”

Some of the workers getting this message had worked at the hotel for decades.

“This is an industry that has already benefited from one bailout, it’s asking to benefit from the next bailout and frankly, it costs zero dollars to make a commitment that if someone’s job is recreated, they get that job back,” UNITE HERE Local 26 President Carlos Aramayo said. “The only reason I could see that a hotel would want to do this is that they want to hire a different person, maybe a younger person, maybe a person who is not a person of color.” Aramayo, whose union does not represent the Revere Hotel workers but is advocating for them, is concerned that hotels are using the pandemic as a chance to slash wages and benefits—not just now, but permanently.

Workers need protections that Congress isn’t going to give them, at least with Sen. Mitch McConnell in charge of the Senate. A patchwork of protections across cities and states is a terrible form of government, but at least Philadelphia is taking steps to help its vulnerable workers. Other cities should take notice.

This blog originally appeared at Daily Kos on December 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson has been a contributing editor since December 2006. Clawson has been full-time staff since 2011, and is currently assistant managing editor at the Daily Kos.


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Workforce Intermediaries Advance Equity and Diversity Through Apprenticeship

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As we kick off National Apprenticeship Week, it is more important than ever to shine a light on the ways government agencies, employers and joint labor-management programs can focus their resources on fostering greater equity, diversity and inclusion in the American workforce. Registered apprenticeship programs are a big part of the answer. Workforce intermediary partnerships that promote and operate apprenticeship programs are powerful vehicles for delivering career opportunities.

A new report by the AFL-CIO Working for America Institute and the Jobs with Justice Education Fund profiles a number of workforce intermediaries that reach into disadvantaged communities and mobilize joint funds and industry expertise to help women and people of color advance in their careers and improve diversity in aerospace, health care, hotel and hospitality, steel, transportation and advanced manufacturing.

Workforce intermediary partnerships bring together the needs and resources of multiple employers in a region or industry, and provide essential input from workers and unions to customize the skills training, apprenticeship and educational services required for employers to meet their workforce needs and workers to access career ladders. The Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee, for example, works with hundreds of employers in Washington State to develop curriculum and customize apprenticeship programs. This year, AJAC helped place formerly incarcerated individuals in good-paying aerospace jobs. An AJAC pre-apprenticeship program for high school students has graduated more than 300 young people over five years. Some 20% of the graduates were women and 53% were people of color.

The story of Grace Rutha highlights the power of apprenticeship implemented by intermediaries. A former reporter in Kenya, forced out of her country by an oppressive regime, she came to Philadelphia to seek a better life, but became unemployed and ended up living in a homeless shelter. While volunteering for a community organization, she discovered a community health worker apprenticeship program co-sponsored by a university and the District 1199C Training & Upgrading Fund. After a few months on the job, with the help and guidance of a mentor, she gained the experience to intercede with HIV patients and protect their health without continually going to the emergency room. Now Rutha earns enough to have her own apartment and she serves as a co-instructor in an educational program of Philadelphia FIGHT. She and others are profiled in the Advancing Equity report.

The report lists 18 best practices in workforce diversity as identified by the JWJ Education Fund in its work with North America’s Building Trades Unions. “Hire watchdogs and grant them authority,” the organizations advise, for example, while keeping up the “push for consistent public pressure from community groups.”

Expanding apprenticeship in manufacturing and the hotel and hospitality industries is a prime activity of the AFL-CIO Working for America Institute, which has a five-year contract with the U.S. Department of Labor to operate the Multiple Industry Intermediary (MII) Project.

For us, every week is National Apprenticeship Week. We will continue to use our education and training programs to create opportunity and upward mobility for workers of all backgrounds. Please join us in supporting this important work.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on November 9, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Daniel Marschall became executive director of the AFL-CIO Working for America Institute WAI) in 2016. From 2008-2015, he served as the legislative and policy specialist for workforce issues for the Federation. He has been involved in the nation’s employment and training system since the 1980s, when he was coordinator of the Dislocated Worker Program for the State of Ohio and executive director of the Ohio State Building and Construction Trades Training Foundation. He served as a legislative director for a Member of Congress. He has a Master’s degree in communication studies from Georgetown University and a PhD in Sociology. He is the author of a 2012 Temple University Press book – The Company We Keep: Occupational Community in the High-Tech Network Society – based on his research in the occupational community of software developers. He is a Professorial Lecturer in Sociology at The George Washington University and a member of the Executive Board of the Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA). He also represents the AFL-CIO at the OECD Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) Working Group on Education, Training and Employment Policy.


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Oregon passes law protecting workers from predatory scheduling by bosses

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Good news for Oregon workers in the retail and fast food industries. The state has become the first to pass a law protecting workers from some of the worst scheduling abuses employers love so much.

One in six Oregonians receive less than 24 hours of notice before their shifts, according to a survey the University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center published in February.

Now, Oregon is mandating that the state’s largest employers in the retail, hospitality and food service industries — those with more than 500 workers — give employees their schedules in writing at least a week ahead of time.

They’ll also have to give workers a 10-hour break between shifts, or pay them extra.

Refinery 29 interviewed some workers about how the law would affect their jobs; according to Tia Raynor:

I worked for an international company that owns a bunch of coffee shops in airports. So while I was working there, they told me that I would have a set schedule. Within seven months, my schedule had changed eight times.

“I am a veteran with PTSD, due to being in Iraq a couple of times, and I was not able to go to my group counseling sessions because my schedule got changed.”

Laws like this should be on the Democratic agenda at all levels: Democratic state legislatures could be passing scheduling protections just as Republican state legislatures pass anti-abortion and anti-union laws, and if Democrats want to campaigning to retake Congress on a good jobs agenda, this belongs right alongside minimum wage and paid leave.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos Labor on August 11, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is the labor editor at Daily Kos. Previous. she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College and the Princeton Theological Seminary. She is the author of “I Belong to This Band, Hallelujah: Community, Spirituality, and Tradition among Sacred Harp Singers.”


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