HERE's Hard Times:

Late last year, Nicole Howard was laid off when
Montgomery Ward went
bankrupt. In the spring, she happily found a new job cleaning rooms at Chicago's
venerable Palmer House Hilton Hotel. But on September 14, she says, her boss
"just told me that because of what happened on September 11, they had to lay
people off," and another job was gone. A 32-year-old former welfare recipient,
Howard was ineligible for unemployment insurance because she hadn't worked long
enough, and she and her 15-year-old daughter were soon evicted from their rented
room and forced to live with relatives. Now, since some high-seniority room
attendants voluntarily cut their hours to share the work, she gets called back
for an occasional day's employment, but "I'm borrowing money, and I don't know
how I can pay it back," she says. "Why do they deny unemployment [compensation]
when it was nobody's fault that they lost their jobs?"

In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the mostly
low-to-moderate-income workers in the hospitality-and-tourism business have
suffered more layoffs than have employees in any industry (other than all
manufacturing combined)--at least 135,000, according to an AFL-CIO tabulation.
Even the transportation industry has lost fewer jobs. Both the personal hardship
and the social impact have been especially severe since the industry is a leading
employer of recent immigrants, former welfare mothers, and inner-city residents,
who have few resources for cushioning the economic blow. The current
stripped-down programs of unemployment compensation and social welfare in this
country will do little to help.

The job losses also hurt the feisty Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees
Union (HERE), which estimates that of its 265,000 members nationwide, as many as
30 percent were laid off sometime after September 11. Many more are working
reduced hours, the union says. And despite help from other unions and the
AFL-CIO, HERE itself has had to lay off nearly one-fifth of its staff and cut the
salaries of the remainder by up to 20 percent.

Under president John W. Wilhelm, HERE has pursued
one of the most aggressive
organizing programs in the country. The union currently spends more than 40
percent of its budget on organizing and remains committed, despite its financial
problems, to raising that to 50 percent over the next few years. "I'm determined
that we're not going to reduce organizing efforts," Wilhelm says. "I think
there's a better-than-even chance this period will end up stimulating organizing.
I don't underestimate the difficulty of getting through this period, but if our
response to crisis is to stop, we might as well close up shop."

Yet for the past two months, the union at all levels has been mainly focused
on helping the victims of the crisis, starting with the families of the 43 HERE
members killed in the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the World
Trade Center and the roughly 1,150 other hotel-and-restaurant workers who lost
their jobs in the buildings that were destroyed. Then there are those laid off as
a result of the public's subsequent travel fears, which hit especially hard in
New York, San Francisco, and Las Vegas--as well as in Washington, D.C., where the
Pentagon attack, airport closing, and anthrax scares knocked four-fifths of HERE
members out of their jobs.

In most cities, HERE has set up one-stop assistance centers to provide
information--as well as translation services for new immigrants--to members and
often to nonunion hotel and restaurant workers. Locals have arranged for credit
advice, psychological counseling, legal aid, emergency food, and rent assistance.
In New York, HERE and other hotel unions pledged $2 million to help affected
members from three destroyed hotels pay for their health insurance, and they
organized their still-employed members to share work and income with those
displaced. In addition to raising $700,000 for family assistance, HERE Local 100,
representing New York restaurant workers, persuaded many employers not to lay off
workers precipitously. The local also fought government bureaucracies on behalf
of the families of undocumented immigrant workers, including 15 of the union
employees of Windows on the World who perished in the attack. (Its successes
included winning Social Security death benefits for these workers' children after
the government denied benefits to spouses.) In the District of Columbia, HERE led
a fight for unemployment-insurance reform--and obtained higher benefits, longer
coverage, and no waiting period.

The massive layoffs are unavoidably making HERE's work harder on many fronts.
And since hotel-and-restaurant business slows in many cities during the winter,
the union worries that despite a modest rebound in late October, job losses could
continue to mount in the coming months. Among other ill effects, that would make
things tough for negotiators of crucial contracts that are expiring within the
next year in Hawaii, Boston, Las Vegas, and Chicago. If necessary, Wilhelm says,
the union will negotiate one-year contracts or strike other special bargains to
make sure that the temporary recession does not depress needed pay raises for
long.

Meanwhile, HERE is energetically pushing for federal legislation to extend and
raise unemployment benefits and to pay the health-insurance premiums of laid-off
workers. Workers are entitled by law to keep their insurance for 18 months if
they pay the premium, but the average price is about $600 a month, and the union
says few can afford that. Democratic Senator Max Baucus of Montana has proposed
legislation that would pay 75 percent of the laid-off workers' health-insurance
premiums, but for those with low or no unemployment benefits, that's not likely
to be enough.

Wilhelm persuaded the hotel industry, including CEOs of dogmatically
anti-union firms like Marriott and Loews, to join him in lobbying for the
expanded federal benefits, and he agreed to lobby for industry proposals,
including temporary tax credits for travel miles and temporary relief of payroll
taxes for both employers and employees. Economic Policy Institute economist
Christian Weller, who has studied stimulus policies, doubts that these measures
would provide much incentive for travel or job preservation. Wilhelm, however,
defends the incentives as temporary measures that might create needed jobs and
argues that cooperation with the companies now may help the union later. "I don't
think that the fact that we're facing a terrorist war is going to do away with
class differences in the country," says Henry Tamarin, general vice president of
HERE, "but if there's the basis of a relationship, it may be easier to hear what
each side is saying and find common ground."

Little common ground is apparent right now at many hotels. Despite cooperation
at one level, lots of employers are seeking their own advantage in the current
crisis by increasing workloads, cutting services (and the workers who perform
them), and increasing the proportion of part-time workers. In Las Vegas, where
8,000 of HERE's 46,000 union members were laid off and as many as 3,000 more
forced to work reduced hours, business has bounced back somewhat, but union
members have not been called back in numbers "proportional to the business that's
returned," according to Local 226's staff director, D. Taylor. "I think the
companies have been more concerned about Wall Street quarterly reports than the
workloads, and they're trying to get two to three jobs out of each worker." In
response, the local has organized delegations of workers to confront hotel
managers, distributed "coupons" that say "Where's my second paycheck?" or "One
person, one job" for overworked employees to give to supervisors, and filed
hundreds of grievances.

Some employers may be targeting union activists. Although the revenue from
his shift hadn't declined, 40-year-old Darryl Narro, a bartender at the Holiday
Inn Chicago-Mart Plaza and an outspoken union loyalist, was told that he was
being laid off because of the economy. "They made cutbacks because of my strong
affiliation with the union and my challenges to their policies," he angrily
charges. In Santa Monica, California, the city council passed an ordinance
designed to prevent local hotels from using the economic slump as an excuse to
retaliate against workers who supported a successful initiative last year
requiring businesses in the city's tourism district to pay a living wage.

There is a good chance that publicity about the deprivations faced by
hardworking immigrants--including undocumented workers who are being denied even
the most elementary public assistance--will spur new sympathy for such measures
and for HERE's ongoing efforts on behalf of immigrant workers' rights. But the
panic about terrorism has dampened prospects for the comprehensive immigration
reform that the union had been promoting. Wilhelm calls this "outrageous." As he
says: "Those planes weren't crashed into buildings by immigrants but by
criminals." Besides, he notes, the workers at Windows on the World came from 37
countries. And the terrorists didn't ask for their papers before launching the
attack.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement