The spreading hotel strike lands in Boston

October 10, 2018

Ryan Roche reports from the picket lines in Boston as UNITE HERE strikes targeting the Marriott chain hit eight cities stretching from one side of the country to the other.

BOSTON IS one of the places leading the way as the successful hotel strike in Chicago spread to a total of eight new U.S. cities this month.

Some 1,800 members of UNITE HERE Local 26 in Boston are beginning the second week of a strike at seven of the city’s most prominent hotels, all owned by Marriott. This is the first major hotel strike in Boston’s history and the first walkout by Local 26 since Harvard University dining hall workers struck for over three weeks in October 2016.

Only San Francisco has more hotel workers among the 7,700 UNITE HERE members who are now on strike in this latest wave of battles targeting the Marriott chain. There are also strikes in Oahu and Maui in Hawaii, San Diego, Detroit, Oakland and San Jose.

“Marriott has forced this strike,” said UNITE HERE Local 26 President Brian Lang. “After five years of record profits and more than six months of contract talks, Marriott still doesn’t get it. It’s our work that creates the great experience for the hotel guests. We are the reason that they keep coming back. Our demand is modest and fair: One job should be enough.”

Striking hotel workers walk the picket line in Boston
Striking hotel workers walk the picket line in Boston (UNITE HERE Local 26 | Facebook)

Last month, an overwhelming 96 percent of UNITE HERE Local 26 members voted to authorize a strike in order to win their demands.

Union members are taking shifts to keep up pickets outside all seven hotels between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. every day. The pickets are noisy and energetic, and morale is high.

DOZENS OF workers were picketing outside the Boston Ritz Carlton last Saturday, where one worker said: “I don’t care if I have to be the last person out here on this picket line — I’m going to keep on fighting until we win what we deserve.”

The picketers were joined that day by members of the International Socialist Organization, almost 30 employees from University of Massachusetts-Boston, and even a tourist who heard the strike was happening and sought out a picket line to show her support.

People passing by raised fists and called out “I’m with you!” — and from passing cars, trucks and ambulances, drivers and passengers cheered in support and honked their horns.

Joe, a hotel restaurant server, talked about the main issues in the strike as he picketed outside the Ritz Carlton: “The biggest issue for me is fighting for better health benefits for retirees, as well as to support the other workers here. They’re fighting for better wages and benefits, and fighting against having to do two jobs for one paycheck due to staffing cuts.”

Joe also mentioned the solidarity that strikers have received. “The workers who deliver the food to the restaurant, they’re with Teamsters Local 25, and they’re not making any deliveries,” he said. “Hotel workers at the Taj, the Westin, the Sheraton and other Marriotts have been really supportive and given us a lot of support on the picket.”

Jean Exandus, a 72-year-old chef in the hotel’s kitchen, has been working for the Ritz Carlton for 25 years. He told us:

Our contract isn’t fair. Sometimes, there are only two people working in our department, and they still want us to run the whole kitchen. We’re asking for higher pay. I’m an old man, I’m almost 73 years old, so I’m fighting for better insurance and better benefits. Even when I’m sick, I still have to come to work, because I can’t use my health insurance if I take time off.

I have bills to pay. I need my job, I love my job, so I need to go back to work. But we need to get good benefits to make that happen. That’s the right way.

MARRIOTT HAS had record profits for the past five years, but the workers who make those profits possible are facing cuts at every turn. Valter Mucaj, who has worked for the Ritz Carlton for over four years, described the struggle for workers:

My wife and I have to stagger our work schedules so we can take care of our kids and share a subway pass. I’m on strike so I can afford to go on living in Boston, and I don’t have to move out of the city. Working life is hard. I don’t mind working, but the only thing is that I need to support my family and my kids. I’m going to fight until the last day. I’m not going back without a contact.

Valter said he had political reasons for being on the picket line, too:

This isn’t an isolated struggle. Especially with Trump’s tax breaks, the rich keep getting richer, and the poor keep getting poorer. They get richer because we’re getting poorer. We’re able to fight today because our grandparents fought for the eight-hour day and for our future, so now we fight for the future, too.

People on the picket line have been following news of the strikes in Chicago, where workers at 26 hotels walked off the job last month, along with the plans for strike action at Marriotts in other cities.

The strikers here are keenly aware that all but two Chicago hotels have settled with the union, including hotels owned by Marriott. This has hardened their resolve on the picket line.

“I know they’re already settling with workers in Chicago, so why won’t they just settle with us here?” one worker asked. “It’s the same company. They have enough money to treat us fairly, so why are they making us strike and picket in order to get what we deserve?”

ON MONDAY, the picket lines were going strong at the Ritz Carlton, and workers became even more determined when they got the news that UNITE HERE members were walking off the job in other cities.

Marriott reportedly contacted UNITE HERE officials in Boston to schedule a meeting with a federal mediator for Tuesday, a sign that the picket lines are working and cutting into Marriott’s profits. “They wouldn’t be reaching out to us at all if we weren’t winning,” said Esmera, a housekeeper at the Ritz Carlton. “I’m going to be here on strike until every single one of our demands is met. Not one, not two, but the whole list!”

Shaq, a server in the Ritz Carlton’s restaurant, said he’s striking for his own family, but also for his co-workers, especially the housekeepers:

That’s backbreaking work. They’re expected to completely clean a room to luxury hotel standards every 30 minutes. Some of these workers are older, in severe pain because this work takes a toll on their health, and they still have to come to work to support their families...

When people ask us where we work, we’re proud to say, “At the Ritz Carlton,” because we know how hard we work. We pride ourselves on giving our guests that little bit extra to make their visit perfect. But management isn’t willing to do that little bit extra for us.

We just want our fair share — that’s it. This is one of the richest hotel companies in the world, and they can’t give us chump change for decent insurance? This money means so little to them...How do they expect us to survive?”

Other unions in Boston have been mobilizing members to join the picket lines and show their solidarity. The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) expressed support for the strike after several players for the New York Yankees were filmed crossing the picket line to check into a Marriott hotel.

“From what we understand, these workers have been trying to negotiate a fair contract for more than six months,” the MLBPA said. “They deserve to be heard and deserve our support.”

This determined struggle and the outpouring of struggle and solidarity from all over the country is pointing the way forward for how our side can fight back and win.

As one striking worker pointed out: “Trump is a hotel owner, just like the people we’re fighting right now for fair pay. It’s all the same fight. And we need to win.”

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