Early this morning, as Dominique Strauss-Kahn was being arraigned at the state courthouse in lower Manhattan for allegedly assaulting a 32-year-old room attendant at the Sofitel near Times Square, some 200 housekeepers from more than a dozen large New York hotels gathered outside to show quiet support for their colleague. They didn't just show up randomly. The rally was organized by The New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council, whose heart is Local 6 of Unite-Here, the national union of hotel and restaurant workers.
Local 6, which represents some 30,000 New York workers, has a contract with every major Manhattan hotel except for the Marriott Marquis and represents about 75 percent of all hotels in the city's five boroughs. At a time when union strength in America is dwindling, Local 6 is one of the most effective union locals anywhere.
When the date of Strauss-Kahn's arraignment was made public, the Trades Council president, Peter Ward, a 32-year union veteran, requested that some 15 housekeepers from more than a dozen major hotels be given a few hours to be present in court. Most hotel managers readily agreed. One holdout, of all people, was the manager of the Sofitel where Strauss-Kahn had stayed. When unionists told him that he would face an immediate work stoppage and a demonstration in his front lobby, he quickly consulted higher authority and reversed his decision.
The fact that a Guinean immigrant housekeeper could report an assault by the hotel's most powerful guest at the time without fearing reprisals is testament to the importance of the union. The standard contract provides that an employee cannot be fired or otherwise disciplined except for "just cause," and guarantees union members extensive due-process rights.
Yet such incidents keep happening. Last Sunday, a 74-year-old prominent Egyptian businessman and banker, Mahmoud Abdel Salam Omar (who evidently didn't read the newspapers) groped a housekeeper at New York's elite Hotel Pierre, a unionized property owned by the Taj chain. (Evidently, managers at the Pierre don't follow the news, either.) The housekeeper reported the abuse, but the manager on duty merely logged it in and sent the worker home. The next morning, a new manager came on duty, read the log and phoned police, who arrested Omar and charged him with sexual abuse, unlawful imprisonment, forcible touching, and harassment. The first manager was suspended for poor judgment at the union's insistence.
But at non-union hotels, it is often workers who are in double jeopardy -- once from predatory guests and a second time from management. One housekeeper whom I interviewed, who works at the Hyatt Regency in San Antonio, told me of a co-worker, her sister-in-law, who reported a sexual assault. Management's reaction was to make the employee take a drug test and to ignore the behavior of the guest.
Harassment or ill treatment of the nation's roughly 250,000 chamber maids is endemic in the hotel industry. Housekeepers work mostly alone, in the living space of hotel guests. They tell of male guests asking for an item and opening their bathrobes when they answer the door, emerging from bathrooms naked, groping them, propositioning them, and complaining of theft when the guest misplaces a personal item.
"At a non-union hotel," says national Unite-Here president John Wilhelm, "it comes down to the character and integrity of the manager, who may or may not behave decently to an employee who reports an abuse. But the system militates against it. The bias in the system is towards the guest. We are, of course, the hospitality industry. The employment system in non-union hotels also assumes high turnover, which devalues the individual employee."
The climate is very different at unionized hostelries. "Ours is a culture of vigorous contract enforcement," says Ward. "You can't work in a place like the Sofitel without being aware that you have rights." Every department, from housekeeping to bartending, has shop stewards available to hear about any problems an employee might encounter. At Local 6, these are known as union delegates, and they are elected by the membership. On any given shift, a housekeeper or other employee can report problems both to management and to the union stewards who are there to back her up.
Local 6 first won union recognition in 1939. By dogged, old-fashioned organizing and continuous engagement of rank-and-file workers, the local has unionized most of New York's hotel industry. Just last month, the local broke off talks aimed at reopening the city's storied and currently bankrupt Tavern on the Green because the restaurateur whom Mayor Michael Bloomberg favored, Dean Poll, was demanding too many contract concessions.
At a time when unions are on the defensive nearly everywhere, the New York hotel union has not only resisted givebacks, it's won new rights, backed by a $25 million strike fund that the members voted to assess themselves. An endemic problem in the industry is wage theft. A manager may shave hours worked or tips or wages due. In a non-union enterprise, there is not much a worker can do except quit. Even in heavily unionized New York, thousands of these disputes are handled as grievances every year and are either settled by senior managers or go to arbitration. However, midlevel managers have no incentive not to play games: The union's 2006 master contract includes a new penalty clause. When the union catches management chiseling workers out of wages, the arbitrator orders not just restitution of back pay but a 15 percent fine. "If management has some skin in the game, they will think twice," says Ward. "They will be more accountable."
But sexual harassment and wage theft are only part of why vulnerable hotel workers need a union. Lately, there has been an arms race among luxury hotels to make rooms ever more baroque -- and more arduous for housekeepers to clean. Some years ago, the Westin chain invented and heavily marketed its "Heavenly Bed," which the rest of the industry imitated. It includes 10 layers, an oversized box spring and mattress, an extra decorative sheet, duvet, and the usual excess pillows. With these changes, in non-union hotels the chambermaids just have to work harder typically with just 15 minutes to clean ever more ornate rooms.
In unionized hotels like the Sofitel, the union gets management to compensate for the higher workload by reducing the quota of rooms. At the Chicago Hyatt Regency, which is unionized, a housekeeper cleans 15 or 16 rooms per shift. Down the road in Indianapolis, at the non-union Hyatt Regency, room attendants clean 30; wages are much lower; and many housekeepers work for an agency rather than for the Hyatt directly.
Housekeepers at New York's first-class union hotels like the Sofitel make $22 to $23 an hour. "It's probably the best contract of its kind on the planet," says Wilhelm. Even so, this adds up to an annual salary in the mid-$40s, which in New York City is barely middle class.
Hotels save money on laundry bills by displaying little green cards urging guests to help save the environment by reusing towels. The cards typically advise the guest who wants a clean towel to just throw it on the floor. "This is so typical of the contempt for housekeepers," says Pamela Vossenas who directs health and safety issues for Unite-Here. "It's just assumed that she is a servant, there to pick things off the floor. Why not tell the guest to put it on the bed?"
The union treats sexual harassment as a worker-safety issue. In the aftermath of the Strauss-Kahn episode, it is negotiating for hotels to provide wireless panic buttons to all housekeepers, as well as better security backup and training of managers.
Other health and safety issues, such as the risk of repetitive-motion injuries have been the subject of repeated union Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) complaints. Hotel work has the highest injury rate of any service sector. Last month, the non-union San Antonio Grand Hyatt, which uses a contract agency to employ many of its housekeepers, was fined by OSHA for failing to log injuries as required by law. Cal-OSHA has issued a formal complaint against the Hyatt Andaz, a boutique hotel in West Hollywood, finding that the hotel exposed its housekeepers to needless injuries and directed the hotel to come up with remedies including easier-to-change fitted sheets and long-handled mops. New York's union agreements already provide for fitted sheets.
Housekeepers, the single largest category of hotel workers, have long been both vulnerable and nearly invisible. "For more than two decades," says Wilhelm, "we've been engaged in a rebalancing of our union. Historically, most of the locals were dominated by 'front of the house' people who were typically white and male. The back of the house, non-tipped jobs, such as dishwasher and housekeeper, had a built in gender and racial difference. So we've made a systematic effort both to encourage people in lower paid jobs to play more of a role in the membership and leadership, as well as to improve their working conditions, and to make it possible for them to aspire to the better-paid jobs."
The union runs a culinary training program, which operates a full-service, white-linen restaurant, and also offers training in computers, air conditioning, and plumbing. Less glamorous and lower compensated people are encouraged to take training and to apply for better jobs.
So if the Strauss-Kahn affair calls attention both to the long-standing abuses of hotel housekeepers and to the union difference, that will have been a silver lining to a disgusting episode.
There is a fitting twist to the Sofitel story, and it begins in Paris. The parent company that owns Sofitel is a large French multinational, Accor, which also operates several other hotel brands including Novotel, Ibis, Mercure, Red Roof Inns, and others. Though Accor has had relatively good relations with its French unions, Accor's New York management had been fiercely resisting unionization of its New York properties since the early 1980s.
But in the 1990s, two new developments occurred. In 1994, the European Commission, then with a majority of center-left national governments, issued a directive requiring all large European corporations with 1,000 or more employees to create European works councils, roughly on the German co-determination model. These councils give worker representatives access not just to narrowly defined labor issues but also to broad issues of the company management practices.
Around the same time, the Geneva-based International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF) picked Accor as a prime target for its strategy of helping affiliated national unions win organizing victories. The idea was to apply pressure to top management of multinational corporations based in countries with stronger unions, by pressing the company to sign a "framework agreement." In these agreements, top management agrees to abide by decent labor practices anywhere it operates.
In the 1995 Accor framework agreement, one of the first, management specifically pledged: "The Accor Group undertakes not to oppose efforts to unionize its employees. The Accor Group considers respect for union rights to be part of the good reputation of its brand names."
"It's strong, declarative language, but these agreements are only as good as unions can make them on the ground," says Ron Oswald, the general secretary of the IUF, who devised the strategy.
The IUF process enabled U.S. and European unionists to collaborate and benefit from each other's strengths. In the 1980s, the manager of the Accor-owned New York Novotel had followed the American corporate playbook, hiring anti-union consultants, firing pro-union employees, and resisting representation elections. The union lost the first election effort in 1985 and only resumed organizing efforts there in 1994 but was met with similar stonewalling.
Finally, in June 1997, armed with the Accor new framework agreement, two leaders of Local 6, including organizing director Jim Donovan, somewhat skeptically agreed to attend a meeting of the Accor European works council in Geneva. There, they apprised their European colleagues of the brass-knuckle tactics being used by Accor's Novotel managers in New York and also were delighted to get advance notice of Accor's plans to build a luxury New York Sofitel, their flagship brand. This led to concerted pressure on Accor management, which was embarrassed by the flagrant violations of its framework agreement and did not want any delays or problems with construction of their new Sofitel in a city with strong unions in the building trades.
In short order, management at the New York Novotel was replaced, the union at the Novotel was recognized, and as part of the deal, Accor agreed that the new Sofitel, scheduled to open in 2000, would be a union house from day one. Thanks to that unionized status, employees from bellmen to chambermaids are decently paid, give superb service -- and are not easily intimidated.
What goes around comes around. Or as they say in France, à bon chat, bon rat. It is not surprising that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the epitome of a French patrician, would pick a leading French hotel for what turned out to be a much longer than planned stopover in New York. It's now clear that he chose the wrong chambermaid and the wrong hotel.
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