Around Country, UNITE-HERE Actions Take on Hotel Giant
By Micah Uetricht
July 23, 2010
In These Times
Many labor movement observers have lamented the
movement's dismal state throughout the past several
decades--and rightly so, much of the time. But a series
of coordinated civil disobediences on Thursday reminds
us that some segments of the movement aren't dead yet.
They're alive and kicking--hard.
Arrests from coast to coast
The hospitality workers union UNITE HERE coordinated
civil disobediences around the U.S. and Canada yesterday
against Hyatt Hotels, claiming nearly 1,000 people might
be arrested. The union says Hyatt and its billionaire
owners are using the economic downturn to squeeze
workers into a "permanent recession," despite a rebound
in the industry. In 15 cities--many of which rarely see
mass protests or civil disobedience--workers and their
supporters hit the streets to express displeasure with
In Chicago, about two dozen were arrested in front of
the downtown Hyatt Regency. (David Moberg offers a
detailed account of that action here.) In San Francisco,
152 were arrested. Vancouver saw a rally of over 600.
Sixty-three were cuffed in West Hollywood. Long Beach,
Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and several other
cities also saw actions. All made frequent mention of
Hyatt's owning family, the Pritzkers.
The best of times, the worst of times
The Pritzkers, one of the richest and most
politically-connected families in the country, have rode
out the recession fairly well. The billionaire Hyatt
ownership family took the hotel chain public last year,
cashing out over $900 million in shares, and watched the
stock's value skyrocket over six months.
Penny Pritzker, the most powerful member of the family,
wrapped up her tenure as National Finance Chair for
President Obama in early 2009, and now serves the
President's Economic Advisory Board evaluating policy
for the commander-in-chief -- while remaining a board
member and chair of several companies, including the
Hyatt, an airport parking company, and a credit check
company. The economic crisis remains grave, but the
union says the Pritzkers are doing all right.
Finances and high-profile accolades aside, however, the
company's public image has taken a serious beating
recently. There was the firing of almost 100
housekeepers in Boston last year, who were allegedly
told they were training subs from a temp agency to cover
for their vacation time, only to discover the minimum
wage subs were intended to be permanent and the
vacations to be unending. The story blew up around the
country. (Even the business press couldn't hold back
Then there was the National Labor Relations Board case
Hyatt settled in San Antonio where two fired workers who
engaged in union activities were offered reinstatement
with thousands of dollars in back pay. (Hyatt admitted
no wrongdoing.) The National Football League players
union sent out a letter in May warning that it might
boycott a Hyatt hotel in Indianapolis, where they say
management has not respected workers' rights to organize
and collective bargaining.
Anger at the company has quickly come to a boil--and
UNITE HERE has kept the heat on full blast. In May,
workers went on a brief wildcat walk-out (a militant
move the likes of which probably has not been seen since
the Republic Windows and Doors factory occupation) at
the Hyatt Regency Chicago, overlooking the city's
Magnificent Mile and near the site of yesterday's civil
disobedience. Then San Francisco Hyatt workers went on a
surprise three-day strike over lagging contract
negotiations. Workers swarmed the outside of the annual
Hyatt shareholders meeting in Chicago, leading Hyatt to
sweat so much that they barred media from entering.
Hyatt weighs in
For its part, the hotel claims it is being treated
unfairly and its business practices misrepresented. "The
union has made this a social justice issue," said John
Schafer, vice president and managing director for the
Hyatt Regency Chicago. "It is claiming that we mistreat
our employees. We don't. Our base pay is $15 an hour.
Entry level, we've got a package, with benefits, of
about $50,000. That doesn't sound like poverty to me."
Annemarie Strassel, spokeswoman for UNITE HERE, said
those numbers reflect past struggles by union members.
"Hotel workers have fought very hard to create jobs that
people can support their families on," she said in
response to Schafer. "Nobody's getting rich on a
$14-per-hour housekeeping job."
Schafer also accused the union of employing theatrics
instead of hashing out a contract. "We don't want to
take anything away from anybody. Our time would be
better spent sitting around a negotiating table rather
than getting arrested in the street," he stated.
Bridget Stalla disagreed. A cook at the Park Hyatt
Chicago, Stalla stood in her white chef's uniform and
hat several feet from where she would be arrested and
accused management of preventing a new contract's
passage since the last one expired in 2009. "They're
using the recession as an excuse to lock us into a bad
contract. They're the ones that are refusing to budge at
The union cites data they say shows that the hotel
industry is "on the rebound," with projected revenues
exceeding previous estimates.
Stalla took offense to statements placing responsibility
for the actions on union leadership.
"I'm not being duped by anybody," she asserted. "I see
at work everyday that I'm being expected to work more
and more, that they're making cuts to our personnel, yet
they want to keep cutting. I hope Hyatt will understand
that it's not just a couple of us that feel this way,
and that they'll actually sit down with us and work this
Based on yesterday's actions, worker/management
relations don't seem to be improving. Hyatt contracts
around the country will expire this year, and both sides
are sure to continue slinging mud at the other.
But yesterday's actions gave a glimpse of an
increasingly fed-up labor movement that is willing to
take bold action against employers to protect what they
feel are hard won (if incomplete) gains. If other unions
were to follow suit, corporations could have a tough
time containing their pissed-off workforce.
Micah Uetricht, a former In These Times editorial
intern, is a staff writer for the Chicago website
GapersBlock.com. He lives in Chicago.
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