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Skip Hotel Room Cleaning? That's Not 'Green' Says Union

Workers protest option given guests at luxury hotels, launch boycott of Vancouver Hyatt.

By Tom Sandborn 24 Sep 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Sandborn was born in Alaska and raised in the wilderness by wolves. Later, Jesuits at the University of San Francisco and radical feminists in Vancouver generously gave time and energy to the difficult task of educating and humanizing him. Tom has a formal education, too: a BA from UBC. He has been practicing the dark arts of journalism off and on ever since university, and now also has about five decades of social justice, peace and environmental campaigning under his belt.

Tom's goal is to live up to the classic definition of a journalist's job from H. L. Menken - to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Reporting Beat: Labour and social justice, health policy, and occasionally environmental issues.

What is the most important issue facing British Columbians?: Two key issues face BC residents (and they're both so compelling and complex that Tom refuses to rank them): income equality and environmental degradation. Both desperately need solutions.

UNITE HERE, the union that represents workers at some of Vancouver's most luxurious hotels says the corporations that run the hotels are resorting to fake environmental programs at one of the hotel chains and to tactics at the bargaining table meant to undermine the interests of their workers and create a "jobless recovery" in the industry.

On Sept. 21, the hotel dispute escalated as the union called for a customer boycott against the Vancouver Hyatt Regency.

"I am calling for a boycott and asking guests not to eat, drink or sleep at the Hyatt. The boycott means that I'm making a sacrifice, since I may lose shifts. I am the main provider for my family since my husband is on medical leave, but I'm doing this for a better future in the long-term," said Naden Abenes, a room attendant at the Vancouver Hyatt. 

Union organizer Michelle Travis told The Tyee that the Hyatt has refused to negotiate housekeeping workload relief, has failed to offer benefits that enable workers and their families to access year-around medical coverage or to retire with dignity, and has offered only meager wage increases of approximately one per cent for each of the next three years.

"In contrast," she said, "the Hyatt Corporation has enjoyed an 18 per cent increase in profits in the first half of 2010, in part due to the Hyatt Regency Vancouver's strong performance during the Olympics, and has over $1.6 billion in cash and short-term investments available. Despite the fact that Hyatt Corporation, and the hotel industry overall, is quickly rebounding from last year's recession, outpacing even analysts' expectations, Hyatt wants to lock workers into a long-term recessionary contract."

Workers march for contracts

A few weeks earlier, nearly 200 women and men, most of them members of visible minorities and many wearing bright scarlet UNITE HERE t-shirts marched outside the opulent Westin Bayshore hotel on the shore of the city's downtown Coal Harbour. The air rang with the staccato beat of a snare drum and cheerfully raucous chants.

"What do we want? Power! What kind of power? Union power!"

As the picket line snaked around the back of the hotel (once famous as one of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes's luxury retreats), bemused guests peered over a shoulder-high barrier from poolside at a group of women and men who are normally invisible to them, the workers who make up beds, clean hotel rooms and feed travelers who can afford to pay up to $475.00 a night for luxury accommodations at the Bayshore. 

The marchers were members and supporters of UNITE HERE, Local 40, and their demonstration on Sept. 2 was designed to highlight the fact that over 1,500 union members at four prestigious Vancouver hotels (the Westin Bayshore, the Hyatt Regency, the Renaissance and the Four Seasons) have been working without a contract since June 30.

The afternoon action at the Bayshore followed a morning rally outside the Hyatt the same day, and was part of a wave of demonstrations across North America, from Boston to Honolulu. (In 2010, hotel contracts with UNITE HERE covering 45,000 unionized hotel workers across Canada and the U.S. will expire.)

"Our hotels pride themselves on providing outstanding service to our guests. Steps were taken to ensure potential impact to guests as a result of the demonstration was minimized," Eric Harris told The Tyee.

Harris, of the downtown law firm Harris and Company, is the lead negotiator and spokesman for the Greater Vancouver Hotel Employers Association, (GVHEA) which represents the four Vancouver hotels with UNITE HERE workers. Harris and Company, according to its website, is "the largest law firm in Western Canada focused on employment and labour law."

How green is 'Green Card' option?

The issues of higher wages and better working conditions and benefits are up for negotiation at all the organized hotels, but the union has a specific bone to pick with Starwood, the company that manages the Westin chain over what it calls a "fake environmental program."

The program the union objects to is Westin's "Green Card" option, which allows guests to place a card on the door of their room or suite indicating that the cleaning staff can skip the usual clean up that day. Hotel management see this optional program, for which guests are rewarded with a $5.00 food and beverage voucher each time they pass on having their room cleaned, as good for the environment, but the union disagrees.

"Although marketed as a 'green program,' it was introduced in part to achieve productivity savings for the company and to increase guests' food and beverage expenditures," says a press release from Local 40. 

"Housekeepers report that after several days of guests using the vouchers, the rooms can take two to three times longer to clean, requiring more water, electricity and cleaning chemicals. As the number of guests using the vouchers increases on a given day, so does the number of housekeepers cut from the day's schedule."

One of the workers on the picket line told The Tyee that for every 15 rooms that take advantage of the "Green Card" option, a hotel employee loses a shift.

The GVHEA's Eric Harris told The Tyee via email that: "The GVHEA believes that we can all play a role in helping to reduce the impact of climate change. We are disappointed UNITE HERE Local 40 does not share this goal."

Harris said that the Green Card option had saved more than 8.2 million gallons of water, 38,000 kilowatts of electricity and 11,000 gallons of cleaning chemicals across all the Sheraton and Westin properties in the first six months of its use.

Making workers pay for green shift

Mae Burrows, a long-term environmental and social justice activist in B.C., who spent the last 12 years as executive director of Toxic Free Canada says Westin's Green Card program shows that hotel management might be failing to understand some basic principles of environmental sustainability.

"You do want to cut down on chemicals," Burrows told The Tyee recently, "but skipping regular room cleaning isn't the best way to go. Hotel guests sometimes leave rooms in terrible shape, particularly if the rooms are not cleaned during a stay. That can result in the excessive use of chemicals to remove stains from carpets and tiles. Stain removers can be among the most toxic substances used in cleaning operations."

Burrows suggested that room cleaning might be the wrong target for a hotel environmental sustainability program.

"Reducing laundry use in a hotel setting can be justified on environmental grounds. I'm not so sure skipping room clean up qualifies. It's a sham to say that you're saving the planet by skipping on a room clean up. Besides, there is the whole 'just transition' issue," she told The Tyee.

"Just transition," Burrows explained, is the principle that when changes are made to protect the environment, employers should take steps to re-train and/or re-deploy displaced workers, so people at the bottom of the salary scale don't end up paying the costs of green programs.

"True sustainability," she said, "would include looking at social issues like a living wage, fair benefits and occupational health."

Hyatt facing labour pressures elsewhere

Meanwhile, the Hyatt chain, whose Vancouver hotel is the target of the Sept. 21 boycott call, is facing other pressures across the continent. In the run up to Labour Day, UNITE HERE workers and their supporters rallied in support of striking Hyatt workers in Toronto, Chicago, Honolulu and Los Angeles.

The GVHEA's Harris told The Tyee in early September that "despite what the union might imply," he believed that progress was being made in local negotiations. UNITE HERE organizer Michelle Travis is not so sure.

"Our members are angry," Travis told The Tyee. "We're hearing proposals from the employer that might be appropriate for mom and pop one-hotel operations, but our employers are global giants with huge profits. The companies are refusing to move on reducing the crippling workload sustained by hotel workers, and now at Westin they are proposing to contract out dining room services."

If a strike is called at Vancouver hotels, UNITE HERE will be able to conduct the work stoppage without being distracted by conflicts with other unions. This summer a bitter dispute between UNITE and the Service Employees International Union, which had lasted for a year and a half and reportedly cost UNITE over $10 million, was finally settled.

The dispute, which involved a breakaway group of disgruntled UNITE members and complex jurisdictional conflicts, was resolved late in July.  [Tyee]

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