The recent news about the former Director of the International Money Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the alleged assault on a hotel worker in New York, raises issues about hotel workers and a safe workplace that the Peace Development Fund began addressing long ago. In this 1994 article, hotel workers were organizing for better working conditions, confronting the use of dangerous chemicals in the workplace, and detailing the vulnerability of immigrant workers. It is equally important today to address the safety and security of hotel workers, not only in regards to management practices, but regarding the very guests the hotel serves.
from Peace Developments, Fall 1994, No. 37
“A Closer Look: Victory Over Fear”
The Hotel Workers Organizing Committee, Portland, OR
“I have worked in this luxury hotel for many years. Of all the people in my department, only three are eligible for any health benefits. The rest of us just hope we don’t get sick.”
“Whenever I use the chemicals to clean the bathtub, my nose starts bleeding.”
“The hotel I work at out by the airport decided to stop all employee food privileges. This means no employee menu, no employee receiving any of the leftover banquet food. A lot of the workers depended upon eating at work; it really made a difference for so many workers who are very poor.”
“If you speak up you either get fired or have your hours cut. What are you supposed to do? I complained on May 5 and I’ve had no hours since, even though I’m on schedule.”
At a public hearing in September, 1993 workers from some of Portland’s Class A downtown and airport hotels testified before a panel of government, religious, and community leaders, including the Labor Commissioner and the City Coordinator of Refugees. With some wearing masks out of fear of reprisal, they described long hours without break, poverty wages, dangerous workplace hazards, employee intimidation and discrimination. The hearing generated an exciting amount of community support and public awareness of hotel workers’ struggles. For many of those at the hearing, the testimony was news. Few were aware of the horrendous working and living conditions of this exploited sector of the economy.
The hearing was organized by the Hotel Workers Organizing Committee (HWOC). Initially a project of the Center for Third Organizing and the Hotel Employees International Union, HWOC began in 1991 with the recruitment and training of young activists of color who launched an organizing campaign to address hotel workers’ struggles for representation. The hearing was followed by a Founding Convention bringing over 140 workers, their families and supporters to elect a Board, to adopt a Hotel Workers Bill of Rights as the centerpiece for organizing, and to celebrate a victory over fear in the workplace.
“Since the Founding Convention,” says Kyle Kajihiro, a leading organizer of HWOC, “we have built our leadership, forming committees to do initial contacts, surveys and so forth. Our core group are mostly hotel workers and community allies and families of workers – the majority are people of color, most of them immigrants.”
Hotel workers are among the lowest paid urban workers in Portland, many of them holding two jobs to support their families, many forced to rely on public assistance to supplement their income. Thousands of them have no medical insurance coverage for themselves or their families. And many of these, especially “back of the house” workers who have no contact with guests, are often exposed to highly toxic cleaning chemicals, without information to redress damage done – a form of environmental injustice that has been virtually ignored. (Ironically, for seasonal workers who do agricultural work, some of the very same chemicals that have been banned in insecticides in the field may show up in disinfectants in the hotel.)
In Portland, hotel workers are women and men of Vietnamese, Filipina, Latina, African American, Ethiopian, Brazilian and Eastern European descent. The majority are recent immigrants, many of whom don’t speak English, don’t know their rights, and don’t have the means to advocate for themselves. Lacking structures to bring them together in their communities, they are largely divided and isolated from each other.
The place of the immigrant worker in the context of our shifting economy is highlighted by the growing atmosphere of racism and scapegoating against poor people in general. In the Northwest, with the massive downsizing of the timber industry, immigrants bear the brunt of the rage of white male workers who have lost their jobs in record numbers. In a twist of illogic, as cities and towns turn to the hotel/tourist industry for survival, the immigrant working at the lowest of wages without security is seen as responsible for the plight of the unemployed.
“You see this sort of attitude in the workplace as well,” says Kajihiro, “in the comments supervisors make – ‘you should be thankful you’ve got a job’ – that kind of thing. People are divided along ethnic lines – it’s an intentional segregation. Front-of-the-house workers who meet with the guests, tend to be younger, Anglo, a more privileged group – their concerns are handled by management before those of the janitors, room cleaners, dishwashers or laundry workers. Back of the house, the policy is to keep people apart, even working on different floors. A supervisor may promote Filipinas while putting down Mexicanas. They tell the Chinese, ‘Don’t trust the Filipinos,’ and the Vietnamese, ‘Don’t trust the Chinese,’ and so forth. It goes on and on.”
Assaulted by racism, isolated in their neighborhoods, intimidated at their workplace, and threatened by unsafe working conditions, until now hotel workers have had no organization to bring them together or to help them address their grievances or alleviate their underlying fear.
“Fear among workers is so high it is really inhumane,” says Kajihiro. “To give an example: at the Red Lion Coliseum a room cleaner, Mexican and pregnant at the time, began to feel acute pains while at work. When she asked her supervisor for permission to leave, he told her to finish her work or lose her job. By four in the afternoon, the pain was unbearable. Her friends rushed her to the hospital where she had a miscarriage. The doctor told her it was a case of employer neglect and that she could sue. But like many immigrant workers, she was afraid and went silent about it. We find this is very common: there are many miscarriages, and we are looking into it.”
Visibility also means helping to allay workers’ fears of organizing. Their fear is well grounded, says Kajihiro, but is also the major obstacle to making change. Addressing this problem, HWOC organizes in the communities, going to where the workers live, meeting them through their social institutions: clubs, associations, churches. “Our endorsement by community groups is key; it has helped establish credibility with the workers, making the links with our issues. We hold meetings in the most appropriate ways. We suggest that people bring friends and co-workers to their houses, discuss the problems in their own language. If this is too threatening, because it’s dangerous to be seen having meetings, then we suggest a neutral place – a church, a refugee center.”
“Our work does not grow by leaps and bounds; it’s very methodical. The real victories, the significant milestones, are to have workers’ fears transformed into hope. When I can meet individually with workers, have them share their stories with me, help them to get in touch with their sense of self respect and turn their fear to hope, this is everything. When you can do that with someone, that person becomes a leader. They may be reminded of the past, but they’re never going to go back. They become the leaders of their co-workers; it is they who insure the success of the organizing. We can actually change this situation if we stick together. This is social change, the kernel of it.”
As PDF connects with groups like HWOC, we find ourselves in a new framework, addressing a configuration of issues that results from the larger picture: the flight of capital at the expense of the worker; the creation and influx of new immigrants in a changing world structure. If, in the Northwest and elsewhere, the “green movement” had brought the fate of our natural resources and wilderness to the social consciousness at large, the realities of environmental injustice – racism, workplace contamination and economic victimization – have not yet entered the public and political debate. Organizations like HWOC are effective on two fronts: by organizing hotel workers to address unfair, dangerous and demoralizing working conditions, they are helping to strengthen Oregon’s labor movement in general; and by bringing to light the realities of hotel workers and other service sector laborers, they are helping redefine the agenda of the progressive community.