UNITE HERE Campaigns for Better Working Conditions
A battle is raging in the hotel industry that has captured the attention of community leaders, labour groups, social activists, religious leaders and even a renowned Hollywood actor.
Major hotel chains are embroiled in a “luxury” war. They are spending millions competing with each other to offer “heavenly” beds — equipped with heavier mattresses, thick duvets, extra pillows, triple sheets and other amenities. But this “bed” war as it is also known is causing disabling ergonomic problems for hotel housekeepers.
Hotel workers suffer debilitating repetitive strain and musculoskeletal injuries to the back, shoulders, arms, legs and hands. According to the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada 2003 figures, hotel housekeepers earn on average $10.48 an hour and report more injuries than workers in heavy construction. Couple this with inadequate benefits and you have workers who are struggling physically, socially and economically — workers who can’t afford to stay in the rooms they are cleaning.
A 2005 UNITE HERE survey of 622 hotel workers conducted in Los Angeles, Boston, and Toronto found 91 per cent of housekeepers responsible for changing bedding and cleaning rooms reported physical pain associated with their work. Of this group, 77 per cent said their pain interferes with routine activities. A majority of them reported seeking medical treatment to help ease their pain. A shocking two out of three housekeepers take pain medication regularly.
Looking to improve the health, safety and welfare of their members UNITE HERE which represents 6,000 hotel workers in the Toronto area has launched a massive campaign. Entitled Hotel Workers Rising
the purpose of the campaign is to raise public awareness and empower their members to “rise up” and demand better working conditions and higher wages.
Says Paul Clifford, president of UNITE HERE Local 75, “We want to provide better opportunities for the mostly immigrant, mainly female workers who help make Toronto a world class destination.”
The campaign kicked off in Toronto at a rally held this past December at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel. To help gain publicity for the campaign and its goals, the union enlisted the help of actor and social activist Danny Glover, whose mother was a former textile worker. Addressing the crowd, Glover encouraged them to continue to “fight against long hours, increased workloads, low wages and racism.”
Inspired by the slogan “Stop the Pain”, Toronto Mayor David Miller, the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, and the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) have also taken an active role in the campaign. This past fall OFL convention delegates passed a resolution to address the health and safety concerns of hotel workers entitled, “Stop the Pain for Hotel Room Attendants.” At the convention delegates were encouraged to write to the Minister of Labour and their MPPs demanding an ergonomics regulation that will help stop the pain of UNITE HERE’s members, members of all unions and workers across the province.
Meantime, the Toronto and York Region Labour Council is also very much involved in the Hotel Workers Rising
campaign. They have developed a multi-lingual flyer for labour groups and other members of the community to distribute. They call it A Million Reasons to Support Hotel Workers.
The flyer describes the plight of the hotel workers and lists the goals of the campaign. This flyer can be downloaded from their web site at www.labourcouncil.ca
. The Labour Council has also developed other tools and information to help individuals or groups who want to get involved in the campaign and show their solidarity.
Most recently, UNITE HERE members were invited to lead this year’s International Women’s Day parade in Toronto. Some 400 to 500 UNITE HERE members from Canada and the U.S. participated in the parade and the rally that followed. Karen Dublin, a hotel housekeeper of 13 years, was a keynote speaker at the rally. Said Dublin, “Everybody I know has pain from the heavy lifting and heavy mattresses. We have to put an end to this.”
A typical day in the life of hotel housekeepers consists of cleaning 15 to 16 rooms a day. To strip and make beds (sheets, blankets, duvets and pillow cases) they lift mattresses weighing 51 kilograms (113 lbs.). They also push over thick carpets supply carts weighing as much as 136 kilograms (300 lbs), not to mention vacuuming, scrubbing floors, washing walls, and cleaning bathtubs. Do the math for an eight-hour shift and you find housekeepers have less than 30 minutes to complete each room. Thus, they are forced to race through their tasks making them more prone to injury yet.
Filomena Canedo, a hotel housekeeper and executive board member of UNITE HERE’s national council, has experienced firsthand the repercussions of a heavy workload. She injured her back and legs after slipping on a wet floor while rushing around at work. Her doctor told her she aggravated a preexisting back condition — acquired from the daily grind of awkward postures and heavy lifting at work.
Canedo believes that work began taking a toll on her two years ago when the hotel first introduced the “heavenly” bed. Says Canedo, “Customers may think these beds are “heavenly” but they are “hell” for us.” Canedo’s biggest regret is that she cannot lift her three-year-old grandson Joshua.
Lillian Salvador, another injured housekeeper, says workers in her hotel work in fear. She explains the contract allows them to give back unfinished rooms to the housekeeping supervisor who will inspect the rooms and assign them to someone else to complete. However, many housekeepers are afraid if they return rooms it will reflect badly on their work performance and could eventually lead to dismissal.
Salvador who began working at the hotel nine years ago is originally from the Philippines. When she first began working she too was afraid of losing her job. “Like so many others do today, I used to eat my lunch while I worked, and skip my breaks so I wouldn’t be reprimanded by the employer for giving a room back.” After attending a union workshop she now knows her rights. She is getting paid “by the hour — not by the room” and rest periods are important to prevent injury.
As part of the Hotel Workers Rising
campaign the union presented a series of five workshops for housekeeping staff employed in Canadian and American hotels. UNITE HERE organizer and spokesperson, Andrea Calver says, “The purpose of the workshops was to raise their awareness of health and safety issues and to help them make the connection between sore backs, shoulders, arms and legs and tasks performed in the workplace. Once participants understand these issues they become empowered to approach the employer to demand improvements in the workplace or to give a room back if they need to.”
To overcome some language barriers workshop facilitators made excellent use of graphics, skits and role playing techniques. Participants learned how to approach their supervisors and managers. They learned the importance of solidarity, formulating clear demands and strategies to achieve their demands.
Workshop leaders asked participants to enumerate improvements they wanted to see in the workplace. In one Toronto workshop filled to capacity, participants enthusiastically listed among their priorities higher wages, fewer rooms to clean, more fulltime housekeeping staff, less pillows, lighter duvets, less double beds, equal treatment, paid sick days, and a retirement fund.
As a result of the union’s efforts UNITE HERE members across North America have begun to take action in the workplace. Here in Canada for instance, in order to make a point about unfair workloads, hotel housekeepers at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel in Toronto staged a one day job action. They each took their 15 minute break enmasse and “gave back” some 90 rooms that day. This brought the hotel to a stand still and the employer eventually agreed to reduce the workload from 16 rooms to 14 rooms during subsequent contract negotiations.
Another job action at the Toronto Hilton Hotel involved housekeepers meeting with the employer as one large group to demand the elimination of the 16-pound duvets which they were forced to wrestle with each day. The employer agreed to replace the heavy duvets with a much lighter four-pound version.
Workers at a Holiday Inn in Toronto used to clean 18 rooms on an eight-hour shift, for $9.25 per hour. After a five-month “work and walk” job action, their workload was reduced to 16 rooms per shift and the hourly wages were increased to $14.25.
Strategically, 2006 is a big year for hotel workers as most four-year contracts in the U.S. and Canada will expire around the same time. Workers at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel have already successfully ratified a three-year contract with a fair wage increase, excellent benefits, more humane workload, and strengthened health and safety provisions.
UNITE HERE Local 75 president Paul Clifford believes, “This is the perfect time to rise up and come together as one strong entity to negotiate ground-breaking collective agreements for our members and for those yet unorganized. The Royal York contract gives us hope that it can be done without a major labour dispute that would cripple the hotel industry in Toronto.”
Filomena Candeo couldn’t agree more. “We only want what every working person wants, decent wages and decent working conditions. I am confident we can get both.”