Skip to content Skip to footer

Why Boycotting Hyatt Is More Than Just a Union Issue: An Interview With Activist Cleve Jones

(Photo: Eric Wagner / Flickr)

If the labor movement is to have a future in the United States, it will depend on its ability to show how the issues it champions are not just the concerns of a narrow special interest group. Rather, it must demonstrate that the well-being of all Americans depends upon the fight for dignified working conditions, living wages and necessities like health care. For this reason, campaigns in which unions reach out widely to allies beyond their own membership are critical.

Recently UNITE HERE, the hotel, restaurant and casino workers union, launched a major campaign called Hyatt Hurts. The campaign is encouraging people to boycott Hyatt hotels in support of housekeepers and other workers. As the union argues: “Hyatt has singled itself out as the worst employer in the hotel industry. Hyatt has abused its housekeepers and other hotel workers, replacing longtime employees with minimum wage temporary workers and imposing dangerous workloads on those who remain.”

Recognizing that a drive against a major multinational corporation would require broad support, both domestically and internationally, the union rallied an unusually large number of allies to aid in the campaign. Outside of other unions, the Hyatt boycott has drawn endorsements from the National Organization of Women (NOW), the Feminist Majority Foundation, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, City Life/Vida Urbana, National People’s Action, the California Council of Churches, the Sierra Club and many others.

Cleve Jones, who is now on the campaign’s staff, embodies the effort to create connections across boundaries. A now-legendary LGBTQ rights activist, Jones was a friend of, and collaborator with, Harvey Milk, the member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the country. (In the Hollywood version of the story, director Gus Van Sant’s Milk, Jones was played by Emile Hirsch.) Jones went on to co-found the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and to conceive of the idea for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. In recent years, Jones has worked with UNITE HERE to build relationships between the labor movement and community allies, including the LGBTQ community.

I talked with him about how the Hyatt Hurts campaign is approaching coalition-building, and about the wider lessons that progressives can draw from the boycott effort.

To begin, I asked how UNITE HERE decided to prioritize bringing in outside allies for this drive.

“Well, that’s how we win,” Jones responded. “I’ve never been involved in a struggle that my friends and I could win on our own. We have always needed allies. It is important to always try to make those connections and connect those dots.”

“Many people say to me, why are you – as a gay rights advocate or an HIV/AIDS activist – involved in this particular struggle? To me, it’s a no-brainer. First of all, there are many thousands of LGBTQ people who work in hospitality industries. And Hyatt markets directly to the LGBTQ community. We know that the gay community is very important to them. The medical industry is very important to them. The Jewish community is important to them. So, we are doing outreach in all of those areas in building the coalition.”

Jones went on to discuss some bigger-picture connections: “I often say, some of the most complex and difficult issues of our time seem to collide on the backs of housekeepers. First of all, it’s about globalization. When I was a child, most of the hotels were owned by individual families or by small businesses with roots in their communities. Today, all of the hotels are basically owned by one of a half-dozen enormous multinational corporations. Like so many multinational corporations, they tend to act almost as sovereign entities.”

“This campaign is also about immigration, because the hotels are one of those places where the latest wave of immigrants is exploited. And it is about health care, because one of the big issues for workers in both union and non-union hotels is access to affordable, quality health insurance. I wear many hats, and the HIV/AIDS activist part of me is very aware that there are a significant number of people living with HIV who are working in this industry. When they can’t afford health care, that’s a big deal for me.”

I asked Jones to speak more about how he decided to invest himself in labor organizing. He spoke of a personal experience from a past campaign against Hyatt:

“For me, what really brought it home was the situation with the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel in San Diego,” Jones said. “It’s one of the largest Hyatt properties in the world, it’s a non-union hotel, and, like so many hotels today, it has a complex structure. The land that it sits on is owned by the people of San Diego; the building is owned by a local businessman named Doug Manchester; and the hotel is operated by the Hyatt Corporation.”

“In that situation, the owner of the building, Mr. Manchester, contributed $125,000 to help underwrite the signature campaign that put Proposition 8 on the ballot. That ballot measure stripped same-sex couples of their right to marry in the state. Hyatt refused to disavow that relationship or take any steps to show support for marriage equality. So, we put together a very powerful coalition in San Diego, which included the Latino community, immigrant rights workers, the LGBTQ community and the labor council. We ended up pulling millions of dollars of convention business out of that hotel. It was a really powerful example of the usefulness of coalition building and of the efficacy of a well-run, well-coordinated boycott effort.”

Emphasizing that coalitions allow for a wider sense of common self-interest, Jones made an important point about how everyone benefits from labor’s success.

“This doesn’t just go in one direction, towards benefitting the union,” he said. “Here in California, after our defeat on Proposition 8, we were made painfully aware of the reality that the LGBTQ community had not been successful in creating a dialogue with immigrant communities, with working people of faith, with racial and ethnic minority communities. That showed in the polls. Now, it wasn’t like FOX News portrayed it: a wholesale rejection of [marriage] equality by African-American and Latino voters. But clearly, we had work that needed to be done.”

“So, in the union, UNITE HERE in particular, that is who we represent. So many of our members are immigrants and people of color. We have a union that’s working at every opportunity to advance the cause of working families, but also a union that has fully embraced LGBTQ equality.”

I asked Jones about other campaigns that have taken place over the years that might be models of coalition-building for the Hyatt Hurts campaign.

“I’ve noticed that a lot of young people are very skeptical of the boycotts,” he said. “I am skeptical of the ones that just emerge in the moment and get a few headlines. I can think of one right now having to do with a certain purveyor of chicken products,” he joked, referring to the PR campaign against Chick-fil-A.

“But for a boycott to really have an impact, first of all, it has to be staffed. You have to take it seriously. You have to have people that are really driving it and doing the work. Because the media is very fickle.”

“When we look back at the boycotts that have inspired me, and I am dating myself of course, but the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a powerful one. The UFW [United Farm Workers] boycotts of grapes and lettuce were others. Back at that time my family was living in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I don’t think any one of us had ever seen a farmworker. I don’t think any of us had seen a Latino person. But somehow we felt moved by that, and honored the boycotts and showed solidarity with those workers.”

“In my community, the boycott of Coors Beer in the late 70s was very successful. That was probably the first real substantive alliance between what we now call the LGBTQ community and the labor movement. The Teamsters went to Harvey Milk in San Francisco and Morris Kite in Los Angeles for support. We got Coors Beer out of almost every gay bar in North America. That cost the company. It was powerful.”

Turning back to Hyatt, I asked what lessons Jones saw emerging from the early stages of the campaign.

“In the labor movement, there is a tendency to use a vocabulary and a language that is not accessible to most people,” he said. “I am always paying attention to that. When I first started working with the union, I sort of teased them a bit and said, ‘You know, it’s too bad you labor people can’t speak plain English or Spanish or Mandarin or any other useful language, because nobody knows what the hell you’re talking about.’ I think progressives in general can learn from watching the words they use and coming up with a language that is understandable.”

“Something that has always been very much part of our union, and a part of many other organizations’ efforts, is storytelling. It’s getting right down to what our lives are about. Who is this woman who is cleaning your room? Where did she come from? Why did she leave her home country? What happened? Does she have children? Does she have elderly parents at home? What is her life story? These stories I find so compelling, not only to demonstrate the justice of our cause, but also to find that common ground.”

“Now, I don’t know you, but I suspect you weren’t born into great wealth. So I suspect you know what it’s like to get down on your hands and knees and scrub your bathroom floor. I bet you have done that in your lifetime. I bet you have made beds in your lifetime. I bet you have vacuumed the floor. You know what that work is. So when we describe housekeepers in non-union Hyatt hotels being required to clean up to 30 rooms in a shift, most people can wrap their brains around what that would feel like. When we say that Hyatt led the fight in California against legislation that would have required long-handle mops, most folks get that it’s degrading and physically painful to be forced to get down on your hands and knees to scrub a linoleum or tile floor.”

“So, we are doing our best to avoid rhetoric for rhetoric’s sake and to really give people a glimpse into the lives of the workers who represent the new economy. These are the jobs that can’t be outsourced. You are not going to be able to make a hotel room bed from a sweatshop in Pakistan or a call center in Mumbai.” Since these jobs are staying, Jones argued, “let’s value them, and value those workers, and treat them with respect, and pay them sufficiently, and make sure they get health care.”

Following up on that point, I wondered about the goals for the current campaign.

“We ultimately want a contract,” Jones replied. “And we want the company to remain neutral in the organizing drives and allow workers to make the choice of whether or not to be in a union. We believe that all workers in these hotels deserve safe working conditions, respectful treatment by their employers, wages sufficient to live on and support one’s family on and access to health care that’s affordable.”

“A big part of why so many of our members are so frustrated with the Hyatt Corporation is subcontracting. In the gay community, Hyatt enjoys a fairly good reputation because of their commitment, among other things, to honoring domestic partnerships and providing health care. They have put into place an extensive nondiscrimination policy and a commitment to diversity. But all of that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans when they subcontract out the jobs. In Boston, for example, we saw 100 women, many of whom had worked in those hotels for decades, forced to train their replacements before they were summarily dismissed. They were replaced with people from an agency. And those workers who replaced them, I don’t know for certain, but I would suspect that none of them now have any of those benefits that the workers had before.”

I finished by asking Jones how he would measure success, short of winning everything the campaign wants – about what outcomes Hyatt Hurts is using to determine whether it is going in the right direction.

“Probably for me the most important would be the most difficult to measure. I want our members to know the kind of power they have. I am 57, and I encounter a lot of people in my day-to-day life who believe they are powerless. They believe they have no voice, or that their voice will never be heard. Through this campaign, our members, and non-union Hyatt workers, are already coming to understand how much power they can have when they work together. That’s a message working people of all colors and persuasions need to hear right now.”

“I am always saying to young people: don’t ever let them tell you that you have no power, no voice. You always can access that power, and you begin by reaching out to others and reaching across the boundaries that have been created to divide us from each other. When I go to a hotel struggle, I see women from Ethiopia and Sudan working shoulder to shoulder with women from El Salvador and the Philippines and China, on the picket line with gay men and lesbian women. That’s how we win.”

“It’s not just the workers in the specific hotels that benefit when we sign a contract. The entire community is elevated. It’s good for all of us. You know, I wish more people understood that. I love my job. It is very exciting work. I have been doing this work for 40 years, and there is never a moment of doubt.”