Seven thousand hotel workers across the U.S. are on strike against Marriott, the world’s largest hotel chain. A strike that started with seven hotels in Boston quickly spread to San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose, Oakland, Detroit, and Hawaii.
Marriott’s profits have doubled in five years. In 2016, the hotel chain expanded its empire when it acquired Starwood’s 1,200 properties, including the Westin and Sheraton hotel chains.
Sales last year totaled $23 billion. Yet workers say they haven’t seen it in their paychecks or benefits. Many are working two jobs to make ends meet. Rising housing costs have also forced many to live far from the cities they work in. UNITE HERE locals in different regions are negotiating separately, but rallying around a common slogan: “One Job Should Be Enough.” While local issues separate workers in different cities, the strikers have three core sets of demands: job security, an end to unsafe overwork, and better wages and benefits.
Courtney Leonard, a server at the Westin Boston Waterfront, commutes 100 miles a day round trip from New Bedford. She’s originally from Boston, but can’t afford to live in the city.
“I drive two and a half hours each way,” she said. “It’s awful. I’m 28, newly married, and I feel like my life is on hold.”
Fifteen hundred Marriott employees at seven hotels launched the first hotel strike in the Boston’s history on October 3.
Since then, Leonard has spent 12 hours each day picketing her own hotel and others around the city.
“We work for one of the richest employers, but the workers are being left behind,” she said. “There are room attendants working into their seventies. It’s heartbreaking. They are here because they need the health insurance. They can’t retire.”
During the Boston strike, hotel restaurants have been closed, and other services in the hotels have been reduced. Press attention spiked during the American League Divisional Series, when New York Yankees players—union members themselves—crossed the picket line at the Ritz before their games with the hometown Red Sox. UNITE HERE Local 26 threw together new picket signs with the slogan “Yankees = SCABS.”
A key UNITE HERE tactic is to encourage organizations to move or cancel their scheduled conferences to avoid crossing picket lines. In many cities, including San Francisco and Boston, the fall is a busy conference season. The union created a website, MarriottTravelAlert.org, to help travelers avoid struck hotels. Three organizations, including the United Way, moved or cancelled conferences in Boston since the strike began.
In Honolulu, unionized United Airlines flight attendants checked out of one struck hotel. The Sheet Metal Workers cancelled 100 rooms booked for a week-long safety conference in Maui.
Marriott claims it’s offering raises comparable to the previous contract cycle, but workers say that’s not nearly enough to keep up with the skyrocketing cost of living in cities like Boston, San Francisco, and San Diego.
Boston hotel workers may make more than $20 an hour, but when tourism dips in the winter, their hours and shifts are reduced. Many lose their health care and much of their income.
To make their jobs sustainable, the city’s hotel workers are pushing for year-round health benefits even for those who are laid off during slow months.
Hotel room prices have skyrocketed to as much as $1,500 a room—but wages haven’t seen the same bump, said longtime Westin worker Manuel Martins. He has health insurance, but, he said, “I’m fighting for people who don’t.”
In Chicago one month earlier, 6,000 members of UNITE HERE Local 1 struck at 26 hotels, including ones owned by Hilton and Hyatt. It was the largest hotel strike in that city in a century.
The union has settled at all but one of the Chicago properties, winning its top demand: year-round health insurance. As in Boston, several conferences cancelled rather than cross the picket line.
NOT SO GREEN
Across the country, hotel workers are also demanding more say in how technology affects their work.
Innovations like ordering room service or checking in online might be convenient for customers, but workers say these changes allow hotels to cut staffing down to bare bones.
Kirk Paganelli, a striking bartender at San Francisco’s Courtyard Marriott, was laid off from his previous hotel job when the restaurant was shut down. He said he’s worried robots that can clean rooms or tend bar are not sci-fi but coming in the near future. “I live with a constant state of anxiety,” he said. “It’s a changing climate.”
Unions are pushing for contract language in their local agreements that would help protect workers from the consequences of automation.
Another strain on hotel workers is Marriott’s “Make a Green Choice” program. Guests are rewarded with points or a beverage voucher if they opt out of housekeeping.
It sounds noble, encouraging guests to conserve water and energy by reusing linens and towels. But hotel workers say it’s an excuse to cut jobs and make them do more work in less time.
If enough hotel guests opt into the program, housekeepers are sent home, waiting to find out if there’s work for them. “We have to sleep with a cell phone next to our pillow,” said Boston Marriott housekeeper Sorinelda Pabon.
Pabon, who was walking the picket line despite pouring rain, gets monthly cortisone shots for her hands because of the pain from lifting heavy mattresses.
A room that has gone uncleaned for days takes more work, and more time, she explained. Yet housekeepers are still expected to get through the same number of rooms as ever. “We have to put more chemicals, more physical work,” said Pabon. “What kind of green choice is that?”
Join the strikers on the picket line! For more info, plus photos of strikers in action, visit the Facebook pages of UNITE HERE Local 5 (Hawaii), UNITE HERE Local 26 (Boston), UNITE HERE Local 2 (San Francisco), UNITE HERE Local 2850 (Oakland), UNITE HERE Local 19 (San Jose), UNITE HERE Local 24 (Detroit), and UNITE HERE Local 30 (San Diego).
Joe Ramsey contributed reporting for this story.