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Hotel Union on a Roll

Suburban hotels check into new world of labour relations.

Tom Sandborn 28 Jan

Tom Sandborn is a contributing editor of The Tyee with a focus on labour and health policy issues. Read Tom Sandborn’s previous stories here.

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UNITE workers from downtown hotels rally at Delta Vancouver Airport Hotel, Dec. 21. Photo: Laura Moye.

In a victory said to herald new opportunities for union activism, workers in two Vancouver area suburban hotels have voted overwhelmingly to accept new contract offers from management.

Their new deals at the Delta Vancouver Airport in Richmond and the Hilton Metrotown in Burnaby will dramatically improve wages and working conditions for a workforce of mostly recent immigrants and women. Nearly 400 employees will work under the newly ratified contracts at the two hotels.

They join hundreds of fellow Unite Here Local 40 workers at four downtown Vancouver hotels who recently won much improved contracts after nearly walking out.

Some observers say the success of Unite Here Local 40 offers important lessons for other unions in Canada. The union has shown itself adept at pulling in support from workers in other unions as well as representatives of faith groups and other community organizations.

Roots of Unite Here

In country music, they talk about 20-year overnight success stories; Unite Here is the labour equivalent. Unite Here grew fours years ago from a merger of unions that had been honing a community-based, and often militant, approach to organizing, growing out of the American civil rights movements.

Unite Here's formation brought together 440,000 members, including the largest union local in the United States, Las Vegas's Culinary Workers, which has helped shape the U.S. Democratic presidential race by throwing their support to Barack Obama.

John Wilhelm, now co-president of Unite Here, graduated from Yale in 1967, and two years later he answered an ad in a New Haven paper inviting applicants to train as union organizers, offering "long hours and low pay." The ad, placed by a Grade 9 drop-out bartender and long time union officer, Vincent Sirabella, changed Wilhelm's life, and may have changed the face of North American labour.

Working together with other young organizers from the '60s generation, Sirabella and Wilhelm gradually shifted the focus of what had been a relatively conservative, business-oriented union for hotel workers into an organization that emphasizes bottom-up control by local workers and broad community organizing around each contract struggle. During decades that have seen a steady decline in union power and membership in North America, Here (and since the merger, Unite Here) has grown in membership and in influence.

Unite Here invests close to half its budget each year into organizing drives. For Canadian unions with a serious commitment to organizing, the comparable number rarely goes above 10 per cent, according to Vancouver & District Labour Council president Bill Saunders.

"I think Unite Here will be a good example," Saunders said in a recent phone interview. "They offer other unions valuable lessons in long term, strategic thinking. They do the work to build broad alliances, and that's crucial."

Action shifted to suburbs

On Jan. 23, Unite Here's members at the Delta Vancouver Airport hotel voted 99 per cent in favor of approving a three-year contract that matched the enriched terms won by their union earlier this year from four large corporate hotel firms in Vancouver's downtown core.

The next day, workers at Burnaby's Hilton Metrotown ratified their contract with an 85 per cent majority.

The new contracts reduce work loads for room attendants (housekeepers), workers who have faced steep increases in work-related stress, pain and injuries over the past two decades as the amount of heavy lifting involved in cleaning the average luxury hotel room has ramped up with additions of new amenities and heavier mattresses, duvets and blankets. One union-sponsored research project discovered that hotel workers suffer an injury rate that is 40 per cent higher than other service sector workers, and that 66 per cent of hotel housekeepers take pain medication to deal with work related pain.

"Amenities over the years have increased and many of the girls complain of knee pains. We need to be working in safe conditions, and this contract will help us achieve this," said Saras Naidu, a housekeeper at the Delta Vancouver Airport Hotel for 19 years.

Along with the workload reductions will come wage increases of 21 per cent by 2010 and better medical, pension and time off provisions.

'We were all smiling'

"Everyone feels great about the contract," says Suki Rai, a room attendant at the Delta Vancouver Airport Hotel. "We were all smiling after the vote."

Rai, a newcomer this year to union activism, served on the 21-member bargaining committee that negotiated the new deal with Delta management. She says she has seen a big difference in the union this year, and she is enthused.

"Last time the union didn't really help us much. The union did a good job this time. They prepared us and were well organized. This time we were all together and everything happened right in front of our eyes. I think this looks like new leadership. I really thank Local 40 leadership. They stood by us every second."

Baljinder Kahlon has worked at the Hilton Metrotown for nine years, and is a senior supervisor in housekeeping. "We are very happy," she said. "The lesson here is that if you stand up for yourself, nothing is impossible."

Other unions lent support

Rai told The Tyee that widespread support from other Unite Here members across the Lower Mainland and the threat of a boycott by other unions and community groups encouraged Delta management to be co-operative in negotiations.

Hundreds of workers from downtown hotels travelled to Richmond in December for a rally supporting the Delta workers. The rally featured choral music from the Solidarity Notes choir and statements of support from local faith community leaders and local politicians.

More than 75 unions and community groups reportedly promised they would boycott the hotel unless it came to a fair contract with its workers. Among those making the pledge: the BC Teachers' Federation, Canadian Autoworkers local 2002, the Public Service Association of Canada, the Hospital Employees Union and the Compensation Employees Union.

"We supported Unite Here and pledged to boycott the Delta if the union didn't get a fair settlement as an act of solidarity," BCTF 2nd vice president Susan Lambert told The Tyee. "When we were struggling ourselves, we got support from the labour movement, and it was critical."

Lambert said that Unite/Here is improving the working and living conditions of people working for low wages. Hotel workers are a work force that has been historically undervalued and underpaid, she said.

"We had a tool we could use to help," she said, referring to the fact that her union had been a customer at the Delta in times past, "and we used it."

Boycott threat no factor: manager

Gordon Johnson, general manager at the Delta Vancouver Airport Hotel, told The Tyee that he had heard from some unions suggesting they would boycott the hotel if a fair contract wasn't negotiated, but he denied the threat of a boycott played a role in the settlement reached. He said most of his customers did not support the proposed boycott.

"We simply wanted to get on with business," Johnson said in a phone interview. "It's hard to pick out any one element and say it was decisive. In the end, however, we got an agreement we can live with."

Johnson said that he had thought his bargaining team made a strong economic argument for wage rates lower than those set in the downtown hotel settlements this fall, but in the end agreed to match downtown rates.

"In the end," he said, "this was about good wages and reduced work loads for room attendants, and that's fair. We supported the workload changes. After all, this is an aging work force."

Hilton Metrotown general manager Ed Jaskula did not return calls from The Tyee before this story was filed.

'Matter of simple justice': Sister Kelliher

Local faith group leaders who came out to support Unite Here workers included Hakirat Singh of the Guru Nanak Sikh Temple, Sister Elizabeth Kelliher of the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement, Rev. Margaret Marquardt of St. Margaret's Anglican Church, Imam Fode Drame of the Zawiyah Foundation, a progressive Muslim congregation, Father Ken Forster of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Reverend Barry Morris of the Longhouse Native Ministry, Reverend Vincent Hawkswell of St. Patrick's Catholic Church and Suresh Behayana of the Vedic Hindu Cultural Society. (These leaders all supported the unionized workers as individuals. Their congregational affiliation is included here for identification, but does not necessarily imply support from their larger organizations.)

"This is a matter of simple justice," says Kelliher, a tough¸ energetic Catholic nun with more than six decades of experience organizing for social justice in New York and Vancouver. "These are the workers that keep the economy going. They deserve a decent wage. Without their work, nothing gets done."

B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair called the Unite Here strategy in winning new contracts in Vancouver area hotels "exciting for the whole labour movement."

"It inspires everybody," Sinclair said. "The challenge now for the entire movement is that there are still lots of unorganized hotels. The Unite Here wins set the bar higher for everyone."

'Quick, sharp, fun, positive'

David Chudnovsky, the NDP MLA for Vancouver Kensington who is a labour movement veteran, said, "We have lots to learn from Unite Here."

Chudnovsky, who served three terms as the president of the BCTF, said the union's organizers "are doing a lot of outreach to the immigrant communities that that supply many hotel workers. They talk to people in plain language, not in a code only activists understand, and their events are quick, sharp, fun and positive."

Chudnovsky participated in a Unite Here rally at the Delta hotel in Richmond and called it "one of the most positive worker rallies I've experienced in decades."

Unite Here has been involved in attempts to re-energize the American labour movement, breaking away from the mainstream AFL-CIO together with the Teamsters, Farmworkers, UFCW, Carpenters, Laborers and the Service Employees International Union in 2005 to form Change to Win, a labour organization dedicated to more robust organizing and struggle than is possible, in their view, within mainstream labour.

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