Liberation and Labor Day

I was the first of 45 demonstrators to be arrested for civil disobedience a few weeks ago in Los Angeles.

All of us were sitting in the middle of a normally busy intersection in the city's financial district, surrounded by several thousand cheering hotel workers and their allies, and by scores of police officers, batons at the ready.

A few minutes before, we had watched Victoria Vergara, a hotel housekeeper who came here from Mexico, frenetically make up 25 beds, just as she does in the course of a day's work, except the beds were in the street, arranged in a circle like the spokes of a wheel.

Victoria put on display, for everyone to see, the hidden labor that sustains L.A.'s lucrative tourism industry. She brought the world of her work into the bright light of a summer afternoon.

And that light illuminated a singular truth about our country: we are a nation dependent on services provided by immigrants, women, and people of color. Yet their employers refuse to accord them the respect, the dignity and the reward they deserve. I call this "plantation capitalism."

Service sector work today is increasingly the province of a caste, of men and women deemed unworthy of basic human rights.

It matters not how hard they work nor how valiantly they strive: they are condemned, as are their children and their children's children, to forever toil in the wilderness.

The promise that defined life in America for so many generations and that gave this nation a true "middle class" does not extend to them: work hard, play by the rules, and you will get ahead.

But Labor Day is not the time for lamentation over what was or even what is. Let us be inspired, instead, by those who have a vision of what can be and, moreover, are pursuing their vision with strategy and passion.

Hotel workers are being arrested in the streets of Los Angeles. They are marching in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. and many other cities in North America. What do they want?

You may not yet be aware of it, but a powerful idea has gripped the minds of tens of thousands of these "outcast" service workers, and it will not let them rest.

They believe their labor should and can lead to a better life, and they intend to make that happen. After all, Jesus of Nazareth said, "The laborer deserves his wages."

In the last century, the "outcast" workers in low-paid, dead end manufacturing jobs organized unions. They turned those jobs into the foundation of America's middle class.

Today, hotel workers are organizing to redefine the nature of their jobs and open up their opportunities.

Many of them work for the same companies, the giant hotel chains like Hilton, Hyatt, Starwood and Marriott. These corporate empires are the result of mergers and acquisitions, of the enormous capital infusions in tourism that have taken place over the last two decades.

Unfortunately, the consolidation of the hospitality industry has not been matched – until now – by the consolidation of the hotel workers.

Organized in local or regional unions, hotel workers have been isolated Davids, fighting for their lives against Goliaths only too happy to keep them divided and conquered.

The consequences of such an imbalance of power were evident in the recent grocery workers' struggle in southern California.

So long as the national supermarket chains could contain the damage to their revenues and image locally, while continuing to do business as usual everywhere else, they had the upper hand – and they used it brutally to strip away wages and benefits that had for many years defined the decent quality of grocery workers' jobs.

The hotel workers, organized by the union UNITE HERE, have decided to redress the imbalance of power between themselves and the companies whose fortunes are built on their labor.

They will no longer tolerate a world in which a room attendant in a union hotel in New York earns $18.88 an hour while her counterpart in Los Angeles, employed by the same company, earns only $11.02 an hour.

They will not devote 30 years of their lives working for the same company only to retire with a pension of $200 a month.

They will not allow their employers to shift the cost of medical insurance to them or to the public health system.

The hotel workers' strategy is to consolidate their voices, their energy, their demands throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Local hotel unions representing some 45,000 workers in seven big markets (New York, Boston, Toronto, Chicago, Sacramento, Monterey, and Hawaii) have synchronized their contract negotiation dates in 2006.

Another 15,000 hotel workers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. are negotiating right now for contracts that will also expire in 2006.

Naturally, the hotel chains are resisting. Consolidation was fine for them; they didn't ask their employees for approval, and didn't have to.

But when the workers want to get together to have a national voice on matters of medical insurance, immigration, pensions, wages and working conditions, the companies act as if it's their prerogative to consent. It is not.

The Civil Rights Movement challenged a similar arrogance, embodied in Jim Crow laws and the belief that African Americans belonged to a caste that was not entitled to the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

We understood then, as we do now, that the first step to liberation is the recognition of yourself as the instrument of your deliverance. Only then, and only through the use of non-violent resistance, can you throw off the claim of another to own your destiny.

On this Labor Day 2004, hotel workers are rising up to renew our faith in the American dream, and to create new dreams for millions of others who labor without the benefit of a union, without medical insurance, pensions, respect and just reward.

We all have a stake in the hotel workers' fight to make service jobs a path to the middle class, rather than a highway to hopelessness.

We must endorse their right to speak with one voice and therefore to align their contract expirations in 2006.

We must march with them, get arrested with them, and support them in every way possible.

Then shall we all be together on the road to liberation.

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