Dozens of Hyatt hotel workers gathered outside the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting in Chicago last week to protest what they call “longstanding labor abuses” by the 55-year old hospitality group.
The protesters were members of UNITE HERE, a labor union that has been in unresolved contract negotiations with Hyatt in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Honolulu, leaving thousands of Hyatt workers without contracts for up to four years.
While the two sides reached agreement on wages and benefits years ago, UNITE HERE remains unsatisfied with Hyatt’s intransigence on two particular issues: subcontracting and workplace safety.
“The best wages and benefits in the world…”
UNITE HERE objects to Hyatt’s policy regarding hiring subcontracted workers. Hyatt has been severely criticized for laying off housekeepers with decades of experience and replacing them with subcontracted temporary housekeepers earning half the wages of the experienced workers.
The most egregious and oft-cited example of this practice occurred in mid-2009 at three separate Hyatt hotels in the Boston area. On the same day, 98 Hyatt housekeepers, women who for decades had cleaned up after Hyatt’s guests, were handed trash bags, told to collect their things, and were unceremoniously replaced with workers from an outsourcing firm called Hospitality Staffing Solutions.
UNITE HERE spokesperson Annemarie Strassel tells TriplePundit that some of the women had just won an award for outstanding service and were expecting to be recognized by their managers. Instead, they were fired and replaced with the very workers who they had been training as “vacation substitutes.”
The fired housekeepers had been earning between $14 and $16 an hour; their replacements were to be paid $8 an hour.
“The best wages and benefits in the world are useless if your job can be subcontracted out,” says Strassel.
Four years later, Hyatt has refused to disavow its subcontracting policy, leaving its longest-tenured workers with little job security.
“…An outlier in the hotel industry.”
Strassel tells 3p that Hyatt has refused to replace flat bed sheets with fitted sheets, which can significantly reduce the strain of the work necessary to raise dozens of 100-pound mattresses day after day. Hyatt has also failed to provide enough long-handled mops and other tools, forcing workers to get on their hands and knees to clean floors.
Moreover, says Strassel, union housekeepers in Hyatt’s Chicago hotels are fighting to reduce their room quota, now somewhere between 14 and 16, because recent room renovations at Hyatt hotels have increased the amount of time it takes to clean a room. At non-union hotels, Strassel notes, Hyatt housekeepers often must clean up to 30 rooms.
UNITE HERE has reached agreement on similar issues with both Starwood Hotels and Hilton Hotels. In some markets, those two hospitality groups and UNITE HERE locals have already agreed to contracts that will expire 2016.
“By contrast,” says Strassel, “Hyatt negotiations have been ongoing since 2009-2010. In this respect, Hyatt has shown itself to be an outlier in the hotel industry.”
“…Not the frequency but the substance”
For its part, Hyatt charges that UNITE HERE has intentionally stalled labor negotiations in order to recruit more members and thereby increase the money it makes in dues.
Hyatt points out that, in 2012, the Chicago area regional director of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the U.S. government agency responsible for investigating and resolving unfair labor practices, found merit in Hyatt’s charge that UNITE HERE was cutting scheduled negotiating sessions short and refusing to schedule more frequent sessions.
The NLRB’s San Francisco regional director found that UNITE HERE was employing similar “bad faith” negotiating tactics in the Bay Area.
“Hyatt views UNITE HERE’s tactics as proof that union leadership is more interested in furthering its organizing drives at other Hyatt properties rather than reaching a fair contract with Hyatt associates it already represents,” the company said in a statement in the wake of the NLRB’s finding.
The NLRB’s findings notwithstanding, Hyatt’s charge that UNITE HERE is intentionally stalling negotiations smacks of disingenuousness, given that the union has eagerly pursued agreements with a number of Starwood and Hilton hotels across the country.
“The problem with negotiations is not the frequency but the substance,” Strassel wrote in an email. “Hyatt has refused to move forward on key issues like the humane treatment of housekeepers and concerns around subcontracting—concerns addressed by other major employers like Starwood and Hilton.”
Hyatt also argues that UNITE HERE has opposed secret-ballot voting at non-union hotels where employees are deciding whether to unionize. Hyatt charges that UNITE HERE, by favoring card-check voting, in which a majority of hotel employees sign authorization forms stating they wish to be represented by the union, has intimidated non-union workers to join.
“We respect our associates’ right to be represented by a union, and we have strong relationships with a number of other unions representing our associates,” said Russ Melaragni, Hyatt’s vice president of labor relations. “We believe our associates should have the right to say yes or no to union representation in a democratic secret-ballot, rather than being pressured at their homes to sign up.”
Hyatt spokesperson Katie Rackoff echoed Melaragni, pointing out that the National Labor Relations Act has for 75 years given employees the right to express their wishes regarding unionization in a secret ballot election.
“We have and will always continue to respect a decision by our associates to be represented by a union, provided that they are given the opportunity to make the determination in a secret-ballot election,” Rackoff tells 3p in an email.
But Strassel tells 3p that card check voting is a common practice, having been used by all major hotel employers, including Hyatt.
“The funny thing is,” says Strassel, “that this is something that Hyatt has agreed to” in Portland, Ore., and at hotels in California. “This is a widely recognized practice.”
Strassel says that UNITE HERE only asks that Hyatt remain neutral as hotel workers decide whether to join the union. Strassel claims that union supporters at Hyatt hotels have been fired for publicly seeking UNITE HERE representation.
“…American workers have begun to fight back”
The 50-odd protesters outside of Hyatt’s shareholder meeting did not have the opportunity to speak with a Hyatt representative.
Inside the meeting, however, Hyatt housekeeper Cathy Youngblood asked the company to pass a resolution that would call on the company to add a hotel worker to its board of directors to replace Penny Pritzker, who has been tapped to become the new Secretary of Commerce and will leave the board in the likely event that she passes Senate confirmation (despite underreporting her 2012 income by $80 million).
“There’s a huge movement of, by and for low wage workers across the globe,” said Youngblood. “I and thousands of workers are demanding to be included on corporate boards, like Hyatt and Walmart and McDonalds and others that employ millions of Americans in the lowest low-wage work.”
Hyatt’s board has hardly taken Youngblood’s appeal seriously. Both Hyatt chief executive Mark Hoplamazian and executive chairman Tom Pritzker have indicated that Hyatt has no plans to add a 13th board member to its board of directors upon the retirement of Ms. Pritzker.
Rackoff, the Hyatt spokesperson, maintains that whether a worker joins the board or not, Hyatt is highly attentive to its workers’ needs.
“The Board and our senior management team know that the satisfaction and well-being of our associates is fundamental to the success of our business, because they are the ones who provide hospitality to our guests each day,” she says. “That is why we are committed to providing our associates with a great workplace environment.”
Rackoff says Hyatt has “an open door policy at each and every one of our hotels and we encourage our associates to speak directly to their supervisors or to any supervisor they feel comfortable with.”
But Youngblood insists that having a hotel worker on Hyatt’s board of directors would enable the company to better understand the policies that would satisfy its workers.
“Far too many workers are suspended or terminated just for suggesting a better, more efficient, and safer way of completing their daily tasks,” said Youngblood. “Changes affecting the workforce are implemented without asking what their workers think.”
“This is the precise reason why American workers have begun to fight back,” she adds. “They are determined to change their working conditions and understand real change will only come when their voices are heard in the boardroom as well as in the workplace.”
UNITE HERE has spearheaded a boycott to pressure Hyatt to change its labor policies. Over 5,000 individuals and organizations, including the AFL-CIO, the National Organization for Women, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the NFL Players Association, the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce, and the Service Employees International Union, have backed the nationwide boycott.
UNITE HERE says that Hyatt has lost more than $26 million in hotel business as a result of the boycott.
No company is all bad or all good. We’ll be taking a look at some of Hyatt’s CSR initiatives later on this week.