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Nationwide Boycott of Hyatt Hotels Launched; LGBT and Feminist Organizations Join Unions to Fight for Workers

Hyatt's horrible working conditions for housekeepers have long made headlines, but now workers are taking the next step and calling for a national boycott.
 
 
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Hyatt Hotel workers and NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith
Photo Credit: UNITE HERE

 
 
 
 

Imagine cleaning thirty hotel rooms in an eight hour shift, struggling with heavy mattresses to make up the beds, kneeling to scrub floors, and pushing heavily-laden cleaning carts through endless corridors. Now think about doing it day after day for years or decades, with limited time off; need a C-section? Your employer expects you back at work three days later. Add sexual harassment to that, along with moves to replace you with cheaper contract workers to cut the hotel chain’s expenses.

You don’t have to imagine any of that if you’re a housekeeper at Hyatt, one of the largest hotel chains in the United States. “Being a housekeeper is really tough work and it does take a toll on your body,” Kathy Youngblood, a housekeeper at the Hyatt Andaz in West Hollywood, explains. The company is notorious for its treatment of housekeeping staff, many of whom are immigrant women. Hyatt housekeepers, aided by union UNITE HERE, have been fighting back across the United States, from contract negotiations in Chicago to support for the wrongfully fired Reyes sisters in Santa Clara. They aren’t asking for a massive settlement; all they want is dignity, respect, and safety on the job with fair wages so they can support their families.

On Monday, union UNITE HERE announced it was changing the game in its ongoing fight to make conditions at the Hyatt hotel chain safer, with a nationwide boycott to force the company to change its practices and protect its workers. The organization is calling on supporters across the country to join in refusing to patronize Hyatt properties, and to participate in voting Hyatt the worst employer in the hotel industry. Not only that, but UNITE HERE is joining with seemingly disparate groups ranging from the National Football League Players Association to the National Organization for Women.

The hotel chain has retaliated against UNITE HERE’s organizing with marketing campaigns, union-bashing, and lobbying; one lobbyist fighting housekeepers in California who want fitted sheets to facilitate making beds claimed that housekeepers were incurring injuries from dancing, not from their back-breaking hotel work, for example. Youngblood’s retort? “Honey, after working at Hyatt, my body hurts too much to stand up, let alone dance.”

Demonstrations are planned throughout this week in New York, Washington DC, Chicago, San Antonio, San Francisco, Phoenix, Seattle, and other major cities. Along with housekeepers, their union supporters, and members of social justice groups, students have solidarity actions planned as well. UNITE HERE is pulling out all the stops with social media as well as on-the-ground actions to get people energized and aware of the ongoing standoff with the hotel chain.

Prior organizing against Hyatt has occurred primarily on a local and regional level, with some solidarity in the wake of specific incidents, such as the unjust firing of staff housekeepers to replace them with temporary workers in Boston and San Francisco; turning heat lamps on workers protesting during contract negotiations in Chicago; or suspending Morena Hernandez for labor organizing in West Hollywood. This escalates the scale considerably. What makes this boycott unique, and important, is not just the national level of the protest.

It’s also the level of coalition-building involved. UNITE HERE isn’t standing alone against Hyatt. They’re joined by major supporters, including not just the NFLPA but feminist and LGBQT leaders who have a vested stake in improving conditions at Hyatt properties as well. These leaders are explicitly examining the issue in the context of their own social movements. The coalition is showing that labor is a critical social issue for everyone, not just the workers involved, and some notable names are involved with the campaign, including the National Organization for Women, National Black Justice Coalition, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Interfaith Worker Justice, National Black Justice Leaders, and Pride at Work.

Talking about the campaign in a conference call on Thursday, Kim Gandy of the Feminist Majority Foundation discussed why abuse in Hyatt hotels is a feminist issue, and why she’s calling on feminists to join the boycott. She’s seen an escalating pattern of worker abuse at Hyatt properties that “seems outrageous to us,” and points out that the company is “just out and out firing these women if they dare to complain.”

Gandy won’t be staying at a Hyatt until they clean up their act, and she challenges her fellow feminists to do the same, to stand in solidarity with workers. The situation at Hyatt involves the routine abuse of women who are often afraid to speak out because of their immigration status and desperate need for employment. Bringing the power of the feminist movement to bear on the issue of worker safety and comfort is critical.

Terry O’Neill of the National Organization for Women, issuing a statement in support of the campaign, says: “The National Organization for Women stands in solidarity with Hyatt housekeepers in their campaign for economic justice and safe working conditions. As long as Hyatt continues to abuse its housekeepers and undermine its workers' economic security, we will fight for their rights and their dignity.”

Both women are underscoring a larger and important issue: labor has a place in feminism, and the feminist movement must address labor issues. The mainstream face of the movement has been heavily middle class and white in recent years, with a focus on issues relevant to those members of the feminist community, rather than workers on the ground. Failure to stand in solidarity with low-wage immigrant women has a profound impact on the feminist movement as a whole, not just devaluing the movement’s message, but making it harder for women to organize collectively.

The fact that major feminist organizations are joining the Hyatt boycott could be the start of a signal shift, and major progress in the feminist movement. With big names behind them, workers could be in a much more powerful position to negotiate for safe conditions and fair wages, and to maintain those gains. If support for the boycott indicates that the movement is ready to work with labor, feminists could also start tackling issues like abuse of agricultural workers, unfair conditions for domestic employees, and the use of sweatshop labor in the United States. Immigrant women are particularly vulnerable to labor exploitation, and yet, they’ve often been left out of feminist conversations about women in the workplace.

Cleve Jones, a noted LGBQT activist and partner with UNITE HERE, says this is also an issue for his community. He engineered the Sleep With the Right People campaign, which encourages members of the LGBQT community to stay at union hotels and support workers. While representatives of the LGBQT movement are often middle class people who are more likely to stay at than work in hotels, members of the LGBQT community have a particularly important stake in the fight for fair treatment in the hotel industry because so many work in hospitality, from cruise ships to restaurants. Acknowledging this and asking wealthier members of the movement to vote with their wallets has the potential to expand the movement to include working class LGBQT people, some of whom have been alienated by the middle class focus of the movement in recent years. While wealthy members of the elite demand marriage equality, hospitality workers catering to those wedding parties just want a fair wage and a safe place to work.

Hyatt, along with many other hotel and resort firms, advertises heavily to the LGBQT community, taking advantage of the large profits to be made from LGBQT vacationers. Hyatt makes a number of claims about working conditions in its hotels with the intent of appealing to socially-conscious travelers, including claims that workers are provided with benefits. This sort of laborwashing may make Hyatt sound like an ethical place to stay, until you delve beneath the surface.

These claims are all beside the point when Hyatt fires workers and replaces them with cheaper housekeepers from temporary employment agencies, as happened to the Boston 100 in 2009. Housekeeper Wanda Rosario says of her experiences as one of the housekeepers caught in the firing sweep: “They treated me like trash, like garbage...these people don’t treat me like a human being.” Boston isn’t the only locale where the chain has chosen to rely on contract workers instead of paid employees, and in Indianapolis, Hyatt was even involved in a suit filed by temporary workers who weren’t fully paid for their labour.

Jones wants more people to be aware of the critical functions provided by housekeepers and other support staff, especially in light of a changing economy. As conversations about outsourcing swirl around the United States, there’s a large block of jobs that can’t be outsourced, and go largely undiscussed. “These workers are invisible, and it’s true. The folks that work in the back of the house...are largely invisible to the general public, but they are in fact the backbone of the hospitality industry. And, like it or not, they represent the new service industry economy of the United States.”

Getting fair working conditions for these workers promotes economic growth, and it’s the right thing to do; hospitality workers deserve an equal footing in society, something other LGBQT organizations like Pride at Work agree upon as well. Jones wants to bring workers and their struggle to the forefront of the public consciousness, but he also wants to do more than that; he wants to directly address the economic inequality faced by workers, including those within the LGBQT community. LGBQT people face a higher poverty rate due to lack of social equality, and fighting for workers’ rights could make a significant impact.

Meanwhile, Jerame Davis of the National Stonewall Democrats references the deep roots of solidarity between the gay and civil rights movement in a support statement: “Our members in more than 80 chapters across the United States respect the historic relationship between a strong Labor movement and achieving LGBT civil rights and will not be silent about Hyatt’s attack on workers.” Historically, LGBQT civil rights and women’s rights movements worked closely with labor, and UNITE HERE is fighting the divergence that began to occur in the latter part of the 20th century.

The group is also joined by labor organizers from other industries, joining hands across trades to promote health and safety for Hyatt housekeepers. Members of the NFLPA speaking up for housekeepers are sending a signal that union members at all levels can work together. Given the amount of revenue they bring in to the hotel trade as they travel for competitions, press events, and other industry-related activities, they represent a sizable force in the boycott as well as an important symbolic one.

With the Hyatt boycott, UNITE HERE hopes to exert more pressure on the chain with a public shaming campaign that will be difficult for the firm to dodge. Union members, students, feminists, LGBQT activists, religious leaders, and others are joining hands in solidarity to make Hyatt accountable for its employment practices and mistreatment of workers, and Hyatt workers are welcoming the support. The broad scope of the boycott reflects the critical need to defend workers to build a stronger society for all of us, and a more just one for workers.

As one Hyatt housekeeper says, “We’re mad and we’re not gonna take it anymore. Hyatt must change. And you can help us by boycotting Hyatt.”

s.e. smith is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Bitch, Feministe, Global Comment, the Sun Herald, the Guardian, and other publications. Follow smith on Twitter: @sesmithwrites.