Stamford hotel workers launch union drive

Dec. 2018 Hotel workers

Sheraton housekeepers lead march to the hotel on Nov. 19. (Ignacio Laguarda / Hearst Connecticut Media)

By ERNIE GOTTA

— STAMFORD, Conn. — On Nov. 19, workers at the Sheraton Hotel here launched a public campaign to form a union. Over 100 workers celebrated their new union with embraces and cheers that filled the courtyard of the St. John’s Episcopal Church as they gathered before making their way to the hotel. Clergy, local politicians, and trade unionists joined in support of the Sheraton workers.

The action showed strength and solidarity in the face of a day-to-day reality that includes terrible health care, low wages, heavy workloads, and not an ounce of respect from management. Several workers, including Quincy, a front desk agent, noted that three of their coworkers had strokes or heart attacks this year because of stress and working too many hours.

The lack of respect was clearly demonstrated as General Manager Thomas Carlos ran and hid from the delegation of workers as it entered the building. He further demonstrated his cowardice by unleashing a wave of captive audience meetings that often cornered housekeepers in rooms alone, in an attempt to intimidate them from joining the union. Union-busting lawyers from the notorious firm of Cruz and Associates are currently trying to grind down the resolve of Sheraton workers by holding daily meetings for groups of workers that last up to three hours.

In spite of the management’s onslaught, Sheraton workers will vote to join the union on Dec. 13. This vote will be the culmination of months of worker-to-worker organizing led by the Hyatt Greenwich and Hilton Stamford workers. A whopping 80% of the Sheraton workers signed up on union cards four days before the pubic launch.

This was no easy feat when considering that Stamford is one of the wealthiest areas in the country. The capitalist class in “Connecticut’s Gold Coast” dominates the economic and political landscape. Davidson, the company that manages the Sheraton, is worth nearly $5 billion and daily services the major corporate players that have their headquarters in Stamford. Yet a group of brave and determined workers are set on carving out a space to take back some of the wealth that was created on their backs.

Sheraton workers are looking to join their union sisters and brothers across the state who have been winning better wages, health care, and pensions in serious contract fights. Two hotels organized by Unite Here Local 217 have won good contracts in 2018. In recent weeks the Hartford Hilton and New Haven Omni settled contracts with gains for the workers that include a $20 per hour starting wage for housekeepers in Hartford by the end of the two-year contract. A vigorous and militant rank-and-file campaign that mobilized workers in every department of the hotels won their demands.

At the Hilton in Stamford, workers won the union vote 110-5 on Dec. 4, 2017, but the struggle for a first contract continues.

Solidarity from NEMA members

Hotel workers were flooded with support the first week in November as the New England Museum Association (NEMA) released a statement that it would not renew its contract with the Hilton Stamford until a fair labor agreement was reached.

Leading up to their conference in Stamford, NEMA members held a vigorous debate on Twitter, using the hashtag #NEMA2018. Many presenters refused to cross the picket line. Others canceled their hotel rooms.

NEMA presenter @RaineyTisdale tweeted, “I cancelled my @Hiltonstamford reservation and I’m talking with my co-presenters about alternative venues for our sessions. One of my first museum jobs was at the AFL-CIO’s museum, and it taught me the importance of labor movements.” After some NEMA presenters moved their panel sessions to the union hall, the hotel lost tens of thousands of dollars in revenue.

On Nov. 7, Yrvonne Lecont, a Hilton housekeeper, and Donald Jean-Marie, a rank-and-file member of Local 217, and bellmen at the Hyatt Greenwich addressed an auditorium filled with NEMA conference goers. They received thunderous applause during the keynote address. On Nov. 8, a delegation of museum curators, with workers by their side, confronted hotel bosses directly and demanded that the hotel sign a contract to improve the wages, health care, and working conditions.

Reading through management responses to conference guest reviews on Trip-Advisor.com, it is easy to see the impact of solidarity from the conference. For example, DenizB660, manager at the Hilton Stamford Hotel wrote, “You are one of many members of your group who believe false Union rhetoric and would not listen to any attempts by management to present the facts. Closed, biased minds prevent true understanding of circumstances to which you have no knowledge whatsoever. Most of what you have stated here is false and ultimately hurts the people you claim to care for.”

If management responds to hotel guests in this hostile way, imagine how they treat their workers! This type of pressure on management will go a long way toward winning demands at the bargaining table. We ask all of our readers in the Connecticut and New York area to keep an eye out for upcoming picket lines and actions in Stamford. Hilton Stamford workers deserve a great contract now!

Marriott settlement

The struggle in Stamford can also be understood in the context of union hotel workers across the country that were striking against an all-out offensive of hotel owners to crush the standard of living won through decades of struggle.

Nearly all hotels in Chicago went out on strike. After three weeks, hotel bosses were ready to come to the table and give workers guaranteed health care during the winter months when layoffs are a reality of the industry.

Similarly, some 7700 unionized Marriott workers from Boston to Hawaii went out on strike for weeks—the largest multi-city hotel strike in history. Workers wanted their wages to reflect living conditions in cities where they live and work.

On Dec. 3, San Francisco hotel workers, members of UNITE HERE, voted to approve an agreement with Marriott, as the eighth and final city to reach a settlement. In San Francisco the strike lasted nine weeks, and the result was a $4 increase per hour in pay as well as concrete ways to address sexual harassment. In Boston the strike lasted six weeks until the company gave into pressure during negotiations.

It is not uncommon in the hotel industry for housekeepers, servers, cooks, front-desk agents, and drivers to work more than one job. Yet the Boston Globe reports, “Marriott is the largest and wealthiest hotel company in the world. The company earned $22.9 billion dollars in revenue in 2017 and has a net worth of $46.8 billion dollars almost twice that of its nearest competitor, Hilton.”

Hotel workers know how much the Marriott profits from their labor. On average each housekeeper making $25 per hour in a union hotel makes the company $1 million per year. These workers service the multinational billion-dollar companies that house their traveling execs. Still, workers are forced to seek additional employment to make rent. The picket lines were filled with signs reading, “One Job Should be Enough!”

These Marriott contract fights are high profile, as athletes and celebrities are confronted with the question of crossing the picket line. In Boston, the New York Yankees were widely derided by union supporters for flagrantly crossing the picket line. Meanwhile, the rapper and member of the Wu-Tang Clan, Method Man, refused to cross the line and was praised for his solidarity.

While the strike wave has died down for now, hotel workers—like the teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona and elsewhere—have shown that the strike is still a powerful tool to win demands from the bosses.

The new organizing efforts in Stamford have their finger on the pulse of a growing working-class consciousness and confidence that will give way to all types of openings to develop politically and independently of the capitalist class.