By Harold Meyerson
WASHINGTON Company by company, in quickening succession, the social contract in America implodes. Verizon and IBM scrap their pensions; Delphi floats a tidy two-thirds cut in pay; profits surge while wages sag and benefits vanish in broad daylight.
City by city, in a now-steady drumbeat, labor and other working-class advocates fight back, with living-wage ordinances, health care mandates on employers and, now coming at the state level, universal health coverage for children. With the federal government supremely uninterested in such minutiae, the battle for a life of middle-class dreams and security is fought region by region, even town by town.
Time was, of course, when it was fought contract by contract, but that was in an America where unions mattered, where they represented one-third of the private-sector workforce rather than todays anemic 8 percent. In a global economy, the conventional wisdom would have it, the bargaining power of unions is the ultimate spent force.
But not all of our economy is global, nor all our labor exportable. Least of all is it exportable in the hotel industry, a sector that employs roughly 1.3 million workers in this country, most at poverty wages. The average hourly wage for a hotel housekeeper is $8.67; multiply that out and it comes to $17,340 a year. Unionized hotel workers make more than that, roughly $26,000 a year, with wage levels dictated chiefly by the level of unionization in a given city. In New York and San Francisco, where nearly all the full-service hotels are unionized, housekeepers make about $19 an hour; in Los Angeles, where about half the hotels are union, housekeepers at the union hotels make about $12; in Phoenix and other Sunbelt cities with no union presence, housekeepers take in $7 an hour.
Which means there are a lot of housekeepers doing the same work at radically different levels of pay, with an even greater gap in benefits. Guests at a high-end resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., and a midtown Manhattan hotel may pay the same rates, and the housekeepers at those hotels all change linens and vacuum floors, but the New York maids make more than twice what their Scottsdale counterparts do. And so it will remain, unless the hotel union UNITE HERE, which represents about 90,000 hotel workers in the United States can find a way to do something that hardly any American union has done in recent decades: organize an industry.
Thats exactly what UNITE HERE is about to attempt. For the past half-decade, the union has been aligning the expiration dates of its local contracts, and this year comes the payoff: Its contracts expire in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and Honolulu. In San Francisco, workers have been without a contract since last year. That means that in more than 400 major hotels across the nation, workers could be on strike later this year (the New York and Chicago contracts are up this summer).
None of this would matter if the hotel industry were still locally owned and operated, but its not. A handful of operating companies Hilton, Starwood, Marriott, Hyatt have been buying up the competition; Starwood owns the Sheraton, Westin, St. Regis, Four Points and W chains. By threatening to walk in so many major cities, the union hopes to persuade the two chains that would be most affected by that action, Hilton and Starwood, not to oppose their employees attempts to unionize their many dozens of nonunion hotels across the nation. In short, it seeks to unionize the chains in their entirety.
None of this would be possible if the hotel workers union, like its industry, hadnt engaged in a strategic merger of its own. Two years ago it merged with UNITE, the apparel and textile workers union, which had its own cadre of organizers and researchers, and considerable financial resources, but was stuck in a vanishing industry. Both unions excelled at organizing immigrant workers, who constitute a disproportionate share of hotel employees. Now UNITE HERE is ready to take on the hotels. Next month it will kick off a national campaign to publicize the poverty in which many hotel workers live; former senator John Edwards, no mean poverty warrior himself, will join the tour.
What workers in this industry need, what the country needs, says John Wilhelm, who heads up the hotel side of UNITE HERE, is a permanent campaign to do in the service sector what we did in manufacturing 70 years ago: transform low-wage work into decent jobs that give people the opportunity to make it into the middle class. And what any credible American war on poverty needs is a union with the smarts and resources to take on a poverty-wage industry. Alongside the living-wage ordinances and Wal-Mart mandates, UNITE HERE is opening a whole new front.
(Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of American Prospect and the L.A. Weekly)
Special to The Washington Post