By ERNIE GOTTA
— STAMFORD, Conn. — It’s 9 p.m. on a Monday night, and Marvin Castaneda, a union banquet server at the Hyatt hotel, is making phone calls to Hilton hotel workers. Initially, he leaves messages. Any unrecognizable number the Hilton workers won’t pick up. They think it might be the company or one of their many hired anti-union lawyers calling them into a one-on-one intimidation meeting.
Marvin reassures the Hilton workers and tells them to keep fighting. After all, he went through the same scenario just three years earlier when his coworkers decided to form a union and join Unite Here Local 217.
Even with 95% initial worker support, the Hyatt’s first attempt to unionize was a failure. The workers were essentially on their own, but with little preparation they learned valuable lessons in that defeat. Hotels like the Stamford Hilton spend millions to break union drives. The experience of Marvin and his coworkers at the Hyatt has taught Hilton workers how to take on the company. The workers know how to spot a company ruse. They know that solidarity will win as the company tries to intimidate the workers away from the union.
This union campaign has been largely organized worker to worker. A lot of sacrifices have been made. Workers like Donald Jean Marie, a union bellman at the Hyatt, spends time with his wife and daughter only in short breaks in between meetings with workers and making phone calls.
Deliverance, a 20-year union cafeteria worker, brings shopping bags of bread, peanut butter and jelly, and popcorn. Instead of stopping for lunch, workers are calling other workers. They grab handfuls of popcorn and slap a quick sandwich together, pouring steaming mugs of coffee from a beat-up old white coffee maker.
Diana Bailey-St. Marks, a University of Hartford union cafeteria worker, makes the long trek from the state capital. Her connections with the workers seem to happen effortlessly. Her enthusiasm comes from the deep understanding that change is possible and that workers standing together can make gains from the company.
Between meetings I chatted with Hyatt banquet worker Francisco Tobias about fishing for stripped bass. When the discussion turned to organizing, he laughed and said, “I’m not making any money doing this. I’m here to help them [Hilton workers]. I want the union to be stronger.”
Hilton workers bring soda, bottled water, plates, and snacks to the office. There is a deeper and growing understanding that the union is their own. Hilton management cannot bring a group of workers into a meeting without it getting immediately shut down. The workers have heard enough of the company’s lies.
After five or six years, most housekeepers are still earning under $11 an hour. The company hires out temporary banquet workers for large events, leaving regular staff at home without hours. The company even steals back 25% of the workers’ hard-earned PTO (paid time off) if they cash out instead of using it. Workers have also reported laboring off the clock without pay. If hard work and dedication got one ahead in life, these workers, mostly women, would be millionaires.
The workers are trading punch-for-punch with the company. Company threats are countered with big worker delegations, and the first union victories are coming in. On Monday, Nov. 20, Hilton workers marched to management with a frozen turkey, asking why Hyatt workers got a turkey on Thanksgiving and they didn’t. On Tuesday, management handed out Turkeys.
Following a delegation of housekeepers angered by the number of rooms they must clean, management lowered the daily room quota. The workers know these changes are not permanent. If they stopped now without forming the union, these gains would be temporary. The only way for them to fundamentally improve conditions at work is to win the upcoming union election.
Bulletin: The hotel workers need your calls! Please call the hotel! Tell them you support the workers and want to speak to General Manager Robert Langevin to tell him to stop the intimidation meetings. Tell him that bringing women employees by themselves into closed-door meetings with management and union-breaking consultants is inappropriate and unacceptable. 203-967-2222, 203-351-1816