Hotel Workers Lead the Struggle to “Upgrade” the Service Economy

In the years preceding and immediately following the Second World War, the trade union movement served to transform work and life for industrial workers and their communities by creating the means to bargain for better wages and working conditions.  Now, in the first decade of the 21st century, North American hotel workers are engaged in a key struggle to transform the quality of work and life in the service economy.

The hotel workers are represented by UNITE-HERE which launched the “Hotel Workers Rising” campaign in December 2005 with the active and very public support of actor Danny Glover who emphasized the necessity for supporting the struggles of low wage workers.  And it is more than low wages at the centre of this struggle.  The intersection of race and class in the hotel industry is anything but ambiguous.  The higher-end front-line positions which also allow for career progress are invariably staffed by white workers.  The back-room, largely dead-end positions are reserved for black workers and immigrants.  The statistics make clear the racialization of hotel work: fully 70% of hotel workers are immigrants and 52% are visible minority.  The median wage for Toronto hotel workers — union and non-union — is $26,000 per year.  Not exactly a princely sum in one of Canada’s most expensive cities.  Median hourly wages run from $10.48 to $11.22, depending on the type of job.  The union factor is significant as unionized workers average $14/hour — a differential approaching 40%!  Working conditions are a 21st-century Dickensian tale characterized by intensification of work, a lack of job control and consequently, and soaring injury rates.  Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSD’s) are amongst the highest in any industrial sector as a result of the volume of heavy lifting required, especially among hotel housekeepers.  One massive study of 40,000 hotel employees found that injury rates were increasing as hotels added heavier beds and room amenities such as treadmills.

The Hotel Workers Rising campaign is creative and enthusiastic.  Its actions and events are heavily attended by not only hotel workers but their families and community allies.  It isn’t so much a campaign as a social movement which looks and feels like it is not only central to but on the winning side of change.  And it is!  This success is no doubt in part the result of the campaign vision and strategy to link these industry issues to larger questions of  what kind of quality of life, what kind of society and economy, we want to have in Canada or rather in North America.  Hotel Workers Rising explicitly links their efforts to the Toronto Labour Council‘s Million Reasons to Take Action campaign which seeks to mobilize around the damning fact that one million workers in the greater Toronto area earn less than $30,000/year.  Again, the racialized dimension in these numbers cannot be lost as many of these underpaid and undervalued workers are people of colour and new Canadians.  The Labour Council’s campaign ask, as does Hotel Workers Rising: are we willing to leave these people behind and if so what kind of society will we have built?  The lesson of these campaigns is honest and true — when workers and their families can lift themselves out of poverty, then they and their communities become better places to live.

The battle Hotel Workers Rising has chosen to fight is nothing less than a direct and open challenge to the practices of neoliberal restructuring and the logic of global hyper-competition.  In the hotel sector, the forces of globalization have compelled rationalization within the hotel industry, which is increasingly populated by a handful of multinational chains — Hilton, Starwood (Sheraton, Four Points, Westin, and Le Meridian), Marriott, Fairmont (Delta), and Intercontinental (Crown Plaza, Holiday Inns) to name the more prominent ones.  The hotel sector, as with the service sector generally, is confronted by the issue of productivity.  It requires human labour and skill.  Technology can do little to extract more profit in this sector.  Instead, profit can only be increased the old fashioned way — through extreme exploitation of labour.  And hence, the macro political problem the hotel workers and UNITE-HERE have chosen to take on: how to better distribute that profit, as a beginning basis to increase workers’ power beyond profits.  It’s not an abstract problem.

Between 1981 and 2001 the poverty rate for immigrants in Toronto increased by 125%.  So much for a rising tide lifting all boats!  The 1990s were a decade of decline and stagnation for most Canadians, the worst since the Great Depression.  In that bitter decade, incomes of two-parent families dropped 13% in real dollars.  The plight of single-parent families was, of course, worse: their incomes dropped 18%.  As of 2005, 35.1% of Toronto’s children lived in poverty — a disgusting fact given that the economy has never been more robust in creating wealth.  In 2004, corporate profits reached an all-time high comprising 14% of the Canadian GDP.  And all this while our modest welfare state continues to shrink and restrict benefits.  For example, only 26% of Toronto’s jobless are even eligible for Employment Insurance.  Again, this speaks volumes as to the importance of the hotel workers campaign to lift living standards throughout the service economy.

To advance the ‘high road’ vision of the campaign, UNITE-HERE has taken, over the past months, 14 strike votes in Toronto area hotels and garnered an astonishing 98% strike vote.  The strategy has been to set in motion coordinated sector-based bargaining.  Victories have been achieved at the downtown and airport Hiltons and at the Sheraton Centre.  The Delta Chelsea Hotel, however, is attempting to break the pattern being set by the union and has drawn a line.  In particular, Delta Chelsea management is actively courting owners of some 25 new hotel projects now in the planning stage for Toronto to stop the union’s progress at the bargaining table.  Other unions which frequently do business with the Delta Chelsea — notably the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, and the Power Workers Union (Ontario hydro) — are currently boycotting the Delta and have cancelled a number of contracts with that hotel.

This workers’ movement harkens back to the great struggles of the Committee of Industrial Organizations which grew through the 1930s and 1940s.  A movement which transformed the lives of  workers and the communities in which they lived.  The Hotel Workers Rising campaign has the potential to do the same, to transform our times — a trade union movement for the 21st Century, if you will.

Sedef Arat-Koc, Aparna Sundar and Bryan Evans teach at Ryerson University, Toronto. This article was first published in Socialist Project‘s e-bulletin The Bullet (No. 45, 13 March 2007).

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