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Seventeen Rooms and What Do You Get? Apparently, a Workforce in Rebellion

Statistics are one thing; people are another.

Statistics are one thing; people are another.

According to a 2009 report in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, hotel employees, and especially housekeepers, have relatively higher rates of occupational injury, and sustain more severe injuries, than most other service workers. This was not a surprising conclusion. A 2005 survey of 941 hotel room cleaners found that during a twelve-month period, 75 percent experienced work-related pain, 83 percent report taking pain medication for discomfort due to work, and 62 percent reported work-related pain that forced them to visit a doctor.
There is a reason for this, of course. The work of hotel employees and housekeepers is not only tedious and badly compensated, it can be extremely physically demanding. Cleaning 15 rooms in eight hours, which is the standard in quality hotels, is hard, hard work. Doing it under pressure makes it worse.

And when a hotel decides to up its profits by increasing the number of rooms that need to be cleaned by each housekeeper each shift from 15 to 17, as both the Sheraton Anchorage and the Anchorage Hilton hotels did in 2009, the problem gets exponentially worse. As a housekeeping employee at the Sheraton explained in March of 2010:

When they increase the job, we have to do more work with our hours. We are not able to take our breaks, because we are just running, running, to try to finish our work, and that leads you to injure yourself. You bump your elbows and you bump your knees. When you are stripping the linen off the bed, you can easily hurt yourself badly. It happened to me three weeks ago. I was running, I smashed my fingers trying to close the closet. I smashed three fingers because of that.

A former housekeeper at the Hilton hotel, Blanca Garcia, explained:

I worked for 15 years at the hotel and never had an accident. Only last year [2009], with the workload now being 17 rooms — I needed to hurry up, hurry up, and I slipped on the floor and my knee got broken.

Nationally, hotel employees have fought back against this type of speed-up through organizing, protests, and appeals for public support. They have often done so with the support of the hotel workers’ union, UNITE HERE! Employees of both the Sheraton and the Hilton hotels in Alaska have played active roles in this effort.

Like so many companies faced with requests and demands from their workers for better treatment, however, the Sheraton, in particular, refused to tolerate that dissent. According to the enforcement arm of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency which oversees private sector labor relations, the Sheraton has, since approximately October of 2009, committed a whole host of unfair labor practices, including:

• unilaterally eliminating the workers' health benefits plan;
• improperly installing and operating surveillance cameras;
• outsourcing workers' jobs and duties;
• interrogating workers regarding their support for their union;
• threatening workers for supporting the union; and finally
• declaring that the Sheraton was now a “non-union” hotel and refusing to bargain further with their union.

The Sheraton also fired four hotel employees outright for handing out pro-union flyers in front of the hotel — something the workers were clearly within their legal rights to do.

Not surprisingly, the NLRB found that these terminations were unlawful. And the hotel’s original decision to increase the number of rooms hotel employees are expected to clean each shift from 15 to 17? The NLRB says that that was unlawful, too.

But the wheels of justice in the world of employee rights grind exceedingly slowly, when they grind at all. The first legal charges were brought against the Sheraton by the NLRB on May 28, 2010, and nearly a year later, that prosecution has still not been concluded. While pressure from the NLRB forced the Sheraton to bring the four fired workers back to work in July of 2010, five months after the date of their termination, the Sheraton has not stopped, much less remedied, any of its other unlawful behavior.

Instead, the Sheraton has ramped up its attack on both its workers and their union. The Sheraton first sued the workers' union for “defamation,” and for engaging in a boycott of the hotel, a boycott it claims has cost it in excess of $630,000. Then it sued the NLRB itself, asserting that the federal government, by finding merit in the workers’ many claims, had itself violated the law. That last lawsuit was dismissed outright by a federal judge in Anchorage, just five weeks after it was filed.

The slogan of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailer's Association, the hotels' trade group, is “Strength Through Unity.” So far, however, it is the housekeeping employees of the Sheraton, not the hotel itself or its corporate partners and allies, who have showed remarkable resilience in the face of almost insurmountable odds. As Ana Rodriguez, a union committee member and recently fired Sheraton housekeeping supervisor, stated:

We’re not asking for anything we don't deserve. We’re not asking for extra stuff, just to keep what we have.

It seems that when you are being required by your employer to clean 17 rooms in eight hours, day after day, standing up to your employer and asserting that you are a person deserving of a decent wage, benefits, and working conditions, and not merely a statistic in the annals of journals of occupational health, is a necessity, not a choice.