Three weeks on the picket line will either weaken a strike or make it stronger. But workers at the Marriott hotels in eight cities around the US show no signs of wanting to go back to work anytime soon, at least not without resolving the reasons why they went on strike to begin with. Instead, the noise on the picket line is getting louder. Workers bang on pots, drums — even old folding chairs — making a racket loud enough to penetrate thick walls and double-paned windows. As a result, many hotel guests not dissuaded by their initial encounters with picketing workers are giving up and leaving.
“Over 20 guests have told me they’re checking out and moving to the Waterfront Hotel,” said Kenneth Walker, the veteran head doorman at the Marriott City Center Hotel in Oakland, California. The Waterfront Hotel, just a dozen blocks down Broadway, is not on strike.
It’s not just happening in Oakland. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Roland Li reports that organizers of the 2018 ComNet conference (a network of foundations and nonprofits discussing better communications), which normally draws 1,000 attendees, moved their events out of the struck St. Francis Hotel. The St. Francis used to be a Westin property, but became part of the 700-hotel Marriott empire when Westin was bought out by what is now the world’s largest hotel chain.
Other organizations pulling out of commitments at the Bay Area Marriotts include the Human Rights Campaign, the Shanti Project, the Chicana Latina Foundation and Bay Area Wilderness Training. In response, a huge wave of robocalls is hitting thousands of people in the region, trying to lure them into the Marriotts with offers of special deals.
However, not everyone is avoiding the hotels where workers are on strike. For instance, in Boston, the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers did not cancel hotel reservations for their baseball teams. Instead, ballplayers, themselves members of a union, snuck into the rear entrances of struck hotels as workers yelled questions to them about their apparent lack of solidarity.
Nevertheless, the picket lines and the creative tactics used by the workers and their unions have largely been the reasons hotel customers have turned away. The impact of housekeepers walking picket lines, instead of making beds, has been hard for the company to deny. According to Tonya Lee, a PBX(AYS) operator on the hotel telephone switchboard for the Oakland Marriott for 28 years, “If our manager had to clean seven rooms, he couldn’t do it. Right now, he just strips the bed, which is the easy part. He doesn’t then make it or do what comes next. The managers have told me that the strike has made them respect what we just do every day.”
That’s also how Walker describes his experience as a member of the negotiating committee of his union, Unite Here Local 2850. “We’re going to win,” he said. “I feel the people across the table have learned to respect us.”
To get Marriott’s directors to pay attention to the union’s demands, the picket lines have been augmented by street actions and marches. Forty-one hotel strikers and supporters were arrested on October 12 for sitting on Fourth Street in front of Marriott’s San Francisco flagship, the Marquis. In Oakland, on the coordinated national day of marches a week later, hundreds of strikers and supporters took over the intersection of 10th Street and Broadway, outside the hotel entrance. As the police stood without intervening, children painted the strike’s slogan in huge letters on the asphalt: “One Job Should be Enough.”
The slogan underlines the main demand by Unite Here in negotiations — enough pay so that workers don’t have to work a second job in order to survive. Nicholas Javier, a server at the St. Francis, told the union’s organizers, “I’m one rent payment away from living on the street, and I have no real job security, so I feel like I’m living on a razor’s edge.” The union is also trying to make sure the hotels continue to pay for health benefits, rather than throwing the burden of increasing premiums onto paychecks.
Workers want protection from the increased use of automated equipment for doing jobs from checking in guests to mixing cocktails. The hotel chain has implemented a “green hotel” program, encouraging guests on cards left in the rooms not to ask for new linen and towels. Although it sounds like an environmentally friendly idea, workers accuse the hotels of using it to reduce the need for housekeepers, speeding up the work and putting their jobs in danger. Instead, the union seeks to reduce a punishing workload, especially for the housekeepers who clean the rooms and make the beds.
While Unite Here locals in each city holds bargaining talks for the hotels located there, the strike has coordinated actions by more than 7,700 workers in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, San Diego, Detroit, Boston, Maui and Honolulu. Seattle Marriott workers have also voted to authorize a strike.
At some hotels, workers are veterans of strikes like this. In 2004, a strike by Local 2 in San Francisco became a lockout by the city’s swankiest establishments. The struck corporations tried to force workers to return under their terms by ending their health coverage. Even after the union defeated the lockout and the workers returned without a contract, hotels refused to deduct workers’ dues payments, thinking this would force the union to agree to concessions. Instead, for two years, the workers paid their dues voluntarily, and at the end, won agreement on the contract they sought.
Since then, what was once a network of large hotels and the companies managing them has become much more of a monopoly. Marriott owns six hotels in San Francisco where workers are striking. At two non-union ones — Airport Marriott Waterfront near the airport and the downtown JW Marriott — workers have declared their open support for joining Unite Here Local 2. They are demanding that managers agree to a fair process for recognizing the union.
Local 2’s strategy, helping workers organize in the middle of a strike, contradicts accepted wisdom among some organizers, who fear managers will use strike threats to discourage workers from union support. Local 2 organizers say their experience is the opposite — that the strike shows that the union is willing and able to fight for improvements against their employer.
In Oakland, Marriott workers are experiencing their first strike. At the beginning, they were unsure if the rest of the workers would support them, even though the strike vote was 98 percent in favor. “We weren’t really prepared for this on the first day,” said Tony Scott, a bellman for 35 years. Lee adds, “I came to work on Friday [October] 5th, and when it was time, I went in and told my coworkers to come out. I wasn’t sure they would. When they all did, I felt I was 10 feet tall.”
Strikes are an education in power, and its lessons haven’t been lost on the picket lines. “Numbers are always important,” Walker explains. “Marriott has used its numbers — how much money they make and how many hotels they own. Now we’re using our numbers to show them they can’t do it without us.”
“This is my first time being on strike, and I see the union is a very powerful force if we stick together,” said Scott. “We have to stand for something. I’ll stay on the line until this is over.”