Workers launch global Hyatt boycott, hundreds picket at Union Square

Pub date July 27, 2012
WriterYael Chanoff
SectionPolitics Blog

As shoppers scurried around Union Square yesterday, a picket that drew more than 300 people could be heard for blocks. The grand-scale noise-making was in front of the Grand Hyatt, where workers and supporters demonstrated against what they say is unsafe and unfair treatment of hotel workers.

UNITE HERE Local 2 has been supporting a boycott of a couple Hyatt locations in San Francisco for years now. But this week the national union, along with a broad coalition of supporters, has called for a worldwide boycott of the hotel chain.

Wong says the boycott will end if the Hyatt capitulates to three demands. Two of these are a “fair and mutual process for non-union workers to organize” and to “agree to a fair contract for thousands of unionized Hyatt workers that have been without contract for three years.” But the most important, according to Local  2 spokesperson Julia Wong, is to implement the workplace safety measures that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently outlined in a letter to the Hyatt corporation and its CEO, Thomas J. Pritzker.

Year after year, boycott organizers say, Hyatt adds new worker abuses to its track record.

“In 2009, Hyatt fired 100 housekeepers in Boston and replaced them with temporary workers making minimum wage,” Wong said. Rose Sia, a 31-year San Francisco Hyatt worker, recalls being alarmed that Boston workers who had held their jobs for 15 and 20 years were made to train their minimum wage-earning replacements. “They were treated like trash that day,” Sia said.

In a July 2011 incident, Hyatt workers in Chicago were picketing in 100-degree weather when their employers turned on heat lamps to beat down on them.

“They’re continuing to spread subcontracting around in more cities,” Wong said. “In Baltimore there used to be 40 or 50 in-house housekeepers. Now there are only eight or nine, and everybody else is subcontracted.”

Most recently a Hyatt worker in Indianapolis, Elvia Bahena, was fired, she believes, as a direct result of speaking out about her negative workplace experiences at a city council meeting.

Mona Wilson, who has worked at the Grand Hyatt since 1980, says that learning the difference between how union and non-union hotel workers are treated at Hyatt was an “eye-opening experience.”

Many Hyatt workers must clock in 30 every week to receive heathcare benefits, and meeting that quota can be a struggle. “I’ve met with people who work in banquets,” Wilson said. “The guys that move the tables around. They bring them all in, they’ll rush them through to hurry up and finish the job, and then send them home before the shift is over, so they never make enough hours to qualify for healthcare. I’ve met with one guy whose been working there for three years and he hasn’t been able to get healthcare.”

“He’s a regular hired worker, but it’s a non-union hotel,” Wilson said.

Even in San Francisco, where most Hyatt workers are unionized and experience relatively fair treatment, Hyatt workers have seen their workloads increase to back-breaking proportions and had to fight to get raises and benefits.

Sia says Local 2 has been instrumental in improving working conditions. “They are the ones helping us get our pension, get our raise, get everything. Without the union, we’re nothing,” she said.

Workers in San Francisco have been locked in contract negotiations for three years. One of their key issues is the freedom to protest in solidarity with other workers, which Sia says is particularly important as non-union Hyatt workers continue to suffer abuses.
Picketers sing labor songs at yesterday’s demonstration

Hotel workers are largely women, and UNITE HERE’s Hyatt Hurts campaign has always called out their mistreatment as a feminist issue. They protested on International Women’s Day, focusing on two sisters who experienced disrespectful treatment and objectification of their bodies at the Hyatt Santa Clara. A few weeks later, the Reyes sisters met with Gloria Steinem, who pledged her support for the boycott.

Women’s rights groups like the National Organization of Women, the National Women’s Health Network, and the Feminist Majority Foundation have endorsed the worldwide boycott of Hyatt hotels. GLBT rights groups like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the National Stonewall Democrats, the National Black Justice Coalition, and Pride at Work have also signed on. So has the national AFL-CIO.

A more unusual supporter, the NFL Players Association, is also getting behind the boycott, promising that the organization will not spend it’s money at Hyatt and discourage players from staying there.

“Many football players were raised by hardworking men and women who punch time cards just like the hotel workers at Hyatt. This is why we decided to get in the game and support Hyatt housekeepers who suffer abuse and debilitating injuries at work,” said DeMaurice Smith, the association’s executive director.

This kind of support is keeping spirits high for union organizers and workers as they escalate their tactics, but the fight may not be over any time soon.

“It took us seven years to bid the Mariott,” said Chito Cuellar, head of UNITE HERE’s hotel division. “It took us five years to defeat Park 55. It’s been three years that we’ve been fighting the Hyatt. And we don’t know how long it’s going to take, but we know we’re going to win.”