The battle at the Hilton and beyond

October 20, 2010

Workers at Hilton Hotels in San Francisco, Chicago and Honolulu ended limited strikes October 18, vowing to continue the fight against a dramatic increase in the workload for room cleaners.

Hilton, which is controlled by the powerful Blackstone Group, a private equity firm known for its ruthless cost-cutting and anti-labor policies, has become the front line in UNITE HERE's fight for decent contracts with major hotel chains in cities across the U.S. Hilton bosses want to dramatically increase the number of rooms serviced by cleaners.

In San Francisco, Hilton workers walked the picket line for six days. That fight is part of a larger battle to replace a multi-employer hotel labor contract that expired in August 2009. Since then, the union has carried out a series of short, targeted strikes aimed at pushing employers to bargain seriously.

Ragina Johnson reports from San Francisco on the struggle at the Hilton and the ongoing battle for decent contracts at hotels across the U.S.

AFTER AN overwhelming strike vote of 96 percent, members of UNITE HERE Local 2 at the Hilton in San Francisco on October 13 launched a six-day walkout as part of a struggle for a citywide hotel contract.

Local 2 contracts, which cover over 9,000 room keepers, chefs, servers, bartenders and others workers in hotels in the Bay Area, expired 15 months ago. Since then, Local 2 has been building a boycott campaign against disputed hotels in San Francisco to put pressure on hotel owners, punctuated by a series of short strikes.

This time around, the San Francisco Hilton strikers got solidarity from their counterparts in Chicago and at the Hawaii Hilton.

Hilton is a vital target in the battle not only against hotel employers, but also against the scavenger investment firms that are making a killing during the current economic crisis. That's because the Hilton is owned by the Blackstone Group, the largest private-equity firm in the world. Blackstone recently purchased 14 hotels from Columbia Sussex Corp., which includes the prestigious Philadelphia Sheraton, the largest union hotel in that city.

A picket line for UNITE HERE Local 2 outside the Hilton in San Francisco
A picket line for UNITE HERE Local 2 outside the Hilton in San Francisco (Steve Rhodes)

Blackstone controls a wide range of other properties as well. An illuminating article published by the Wall Street Journal on the exact day that Hilton workers walked out in San Francisco explained how the vultures at Blackstone are "stalking hotel owners that are buckling under massive debts incurred in boom-time buyouts that took them private."

Blackstone has also taken advantage of the U.S. taxpayer bailout of the financial system to cut its $20 billion debt for buying the Hilton by $4 billion. That's because much of Blackstone's Hilton debt was owed to Bear Stearns, the investment bank whose bad assets were taken over by the Federal Reserve. Thus, when Blackstone renegotiated its Hilton debts, U.S. taxpayers took the losses.

But while Blackstone and Hilton bank accounts are just hunky-dory, Hilton management wants to:

Increase heath care costs per worker to $325-340 per month over the term of a four-year contact, with the employer covering only $150 of these costs;

Limit pension funding by refusing to pay the $70 per month needed in order for an employee who has worked for the company for 30 years to receive a $1,200 per month retirement benefit;

Restrict pay increases to less than 40 cents per hour in each year of the contract, despite the fact that this isn't enough to cover retroactive health care contribution increases;

Combine two job classifications in housekeeping and two classifications in room service, which would result in fewer shifts for workers currently in those jobs;

Require room cleaners to clean up to 20 rooms per day.

WHAT DOES a 20-room quota mean for hotel room cleaners?

Twenty years ago, at the age of 15, I cleaned rooms at the Desert Rose Inn--the only hotel in the small California town where I grew up. I made $3.80 an hour, the minimum wage at the time, and if it weren't for the tips I received, I wouldn't have made much of a salary at all.

I know firsthand the type of stress this can cause on a person's body. I was lucky--I did service work for only 10 years, sometimes two or three of these jobs at a time, to put myself through college. Many of the people performing this work at the Hilton and other hotels clean rooms as a career--20 or 30 or more years of bending over, flipping beds, fluffing pillows, picking up trash and using chemicals to clean bathrooms. Everything that makes staying at a hotel so lovely and stress free.

But these amenities can cause long-term, debilitating health effects for the workers who clean the rooms.

A recent survey by UNITE HERE titled "Housekeeper's Realities: Pain and Injuries" showed how housekeeping work can destroy the health of workers. Out of 622 hotel housekeepers surveyed in several cities, including Boston, Los Angeles and Toronto, 91 percent of housekeepers experience workplace pain. Of those with workplace pain:

86 percent said pain began after beginning the job;

77 percent said pain interferes with routine activities;

66 percent take pain medication regularly;

67 percent saw a doctor for pain;

37 percent took a day off to recover from pain.

This survey is important to consider as Hilton is pushing for work speedups and drastic cuts to health care for room cleaners and hotel workers. This is a workforce that needs shorter work hours, more oversight of working conditions and increased access to heath care.

Instead, the Hilton has proposed the atrocious 20-room quota for room cleaners, not including turndowns. This quota would apply in all conditions, whether a cleaner if covering double or single rooms or rooms with cots, and whether a room cleaner will have to travel to multiple floors or buildings.

According to organizer Lorraine Powell, "having a quota of 14 rooms for room cleaners was based on gains by the union with the Local 2 contracts won in 1980 and 1999." If the contract desired by the Hilton passes, room cleaners would see a workload increase of 40 percent.

Xiomara Cruz has worked at the Hilton as a room cleaner for five years. She has a night shift, from 5 p.m. until 1 a.m., and makes a wage of $18.35 an hour. In an interview on the picket line, she talked about her experience cleaning rooms without a contract, and what the 20-room quota would mean for her work:

Our old contract says that I have to clean 14 rooms. If I do six checkout rooms, I can drop one room. Also, if I work on three different floors, I can drop one room. The contract proposed by the Hilton doesn't allow for dropping rooms. Right now, I'm doing 65 turndown rooms, in two to three buildings, on 23 floors, plus seven checkout rooms. There is no language in our contract regarding turndowns.

I have numbness in my fingers, shoulder and back problems. Everyone [who works with me] has back and shoulder pain and numbness in their fingers. We are supposed to have two breaks and a dinner break. I am not taking time for dinner and breaks because there is too much work, but we have to sign off on the sheet saying we took our breaks even when we didn't.

Xiomara also talked about the increased health care costs that the Hilton wanted her to pay: "Right now, the hotel pays everything for health care. When I visit the doctor, I only pay a $5 fee. There is no way I'll be able to afford to pay the health care fees the Hilton is asking."

WHAT ABOUT Blackstone's claims that it can't afford to pay more in health care and wages? "Housekeeping has been busy all year," Xiomara said. "Everyone is working overtime and skipping breaks. Blackstone says business isn't good, but rooms are at 100 percent."

Local 2 President Mike Casey made a similar point at a union rally. "According to the Wall Street Journal, Blackstone has seen an increased revenue of 50 percent this year," he said. "Executive pay is set to increase 12 percent. They are going to be paid a 12 percent increase for putting workers on the street.

"We're trying to take on a corporation that has $28 billion in cash. They made their money on public and private pension funds. Two major unions [the California Federation of Teachers and the California Teachers Association] have said no more! You can't use our money to abuse workers in San Francisco, Hawaii, Toronto and Chicago."

The money is there for the Hilton and owner Blackstone to give back to the workers. But in order for the hotel workers to win, there needs to be solidarity. We have already seen the beginning of what this solidarity can and should look like. Casey pointed out that "Teamsters were responsible for helping to keep Southern Wine and Spirits from delivering on [October 15], which will cost the Hilton half a million dollars. "

A win against Blackstone and the Hilton would be a gain for all workers. If we let Blackstone succeed in pushing concessionary contracts at the Hilton despite their growing profits, our struggle to fight back against the cuts to workers living conditions across the U.S. will be weakened. The hotel workers' fight is our fight.

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