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Julius Getman professor of Law at the University of Texas, writes on Talking Union

For over three years UNITE HERE, the union that represents hotel workers, and Hyatt Corp. have been engaged in a fierce escalating struggle. The union has recently called for a boycott of Hyatt.

The confrontation between Hyatt and UNITE HERE is part of the world wide struggle for basic human rights, particularly for immigrant workers. It is important that liberals, progressives, workers, and those who believe in economic fairness support the boycottand let Hyatt know of it.

Immigrant workers are the backbone of the hotel industry and when they do not have the backing of a union they are regularly and shamefully exploited. Hyatt, where the majority of workers are not unionized, is one of the most flagrant exploiters. Where its workers are not unionized the pay scale is low and the work load, particularly on room attendants is a constant danger to their health, both physical and emotional.

San Antonio, where Hyatt has two hotels on the famed Riverwalk, is an example. Its housekeepers are saddled with enormous work loads of up to 30 rooms per day roughly double the work load of unionized hotel workers in Las Vegas. Many of its older workers suffer from chronic back arm and neck injuries. Given the workload this is not surprising.

Hotel housekeeping is a difficult dangerous sometimes demeaning occupation A study by OSHA of working conditions at several Hyatt hotels, including those in San Antonio, found “tasks presenting risk factors such as repeated heavy lifting and carrying, bending, twisting, elevated and extended reaches, pushing and pulling, and forceful gripping.” It is revealing of Hyatt’s attitude towards its workers that it charges banquet customers a 22% gratuity charge, but its workers never receive any of the money.

Without a union there is no job security for Hyatt’s workers, a point sadly illustrated by the story of the Hyatt 100 as told in Fortune magazine:

    What was Hyatt thinking? That no one would notice? That no one would care?

    Here’s what Hyatt did: At 3 o’clock on a Monday afternoon, Aug.31, managers at two Hyatt-owned hotels in Boston and one Hyatt-managed hotel in Cambridge, in a coordinated effort, summoned their entire housekeeping staffs, fired everybody on the spot, and immediately outsourced the jobs to a staffing company based in Atlanta….

    Here’s what we gradually learned: That most of the 98 fired housekeepers were immigrant women; that some of them had been working for Hyatt for more than 20 years; that before they were fired, they were directed to train their replacements under the guise that the newcomers would be available to spell them during vacations.

The effort to organize Hyatt is a key element in the monumental task of restoring the private sector labor movement. The hospitality industry is vast and growing. UNITE HERE is a democratic member-centered union. It is seeking to organize the industry one hotel and one employer at a time. It is likely to be successful if Hyatt will agree to a system under which the workers without the pressure of a management campaign decide whether or not they wish union representation.

Success in organizing Hyatt is likely to be replicated at other hotels in the Southwest. San Antonio, where union organizing is going on at two Hyatt hotels, is a convention city with millions of annual visitors. Workers throughout the city are aware of the Hyatt struggle. When Hyatt workers have the economic and job security protections of a collective bargaining contract, it will be very difficult for other hotel chains to reject fair ground rules and run traditional anti-union campaigns. Hyatt in San Antonio may eventually lead to unionization of hotels in other Texas cities, particularly Austin, Houston, and El Paso.

The political implications of this are enormous. Immigrant workers generally and Hispanic workers in particular are the sleeping giant of politics in States like Texas and Arizona. As Harry Reid’s union energized, come from behind, victory in Nevada in 2010 demonstrated , unions stimulate political involvement and provide a vehicle for it. Many years ago unionized immigrant workers transformed politics in states like New York, New Jersey, and Ohio. They can do the same in Texas. If Texas is changed politically the country will inevitably and permanently be different politically.

The Hyatt campaign can be a major step in strengthening the alliance between labor and other progressive groups. Such alliances have in many countries taken the lead in the creation of a more democratic society. They did so in the 1930s and ’40s in the United States. They were key to the formation of Solidarity in Poland in 1979 and 80. and they can serve to create a fairer and more progressive society in the United States now and in the immediate future.

Julius G. Getman is Earl E Sheffield Regents Chair, University of Texas School of Law and author, Restoring the Power of Unions, Yale Press 2010

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