We feel for ya. Not only was your check-in delayed several hours because the rooms weren’t ready, but the hospital corners on your king-sized mattress look more like something a stoop-backed arthritic mashed together. Judging by the recent case studies and a monumental complaint pending before Occupational Safety and Health Administration, they likely were. So before you go complaining to management to have the help whipped in some dimly lit basement corridor — pause to consider the reverberation of hundreds of voices crying “Si Se Puede” before SA’s Grand Hyatt in the street below. In all that brain-tumbling din, hundreds of protesters armed with plastic whistles and clappers called out Friday for reform.
“They want to unionize and there have been through the years a lot of barriers, obstacles, threats, coercions, intimidations to keep them from unionizing,” said Jaime Martinez, a longtime organizer in San Antonio. “The bottom line is, this union will unite `with` the solidarity support of all these organizations, César Chávez, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, AFL-CIO.
Of course, last Friday’s event was the overwhelming product of the American Studies Association, which originally booked its annual conference at the Hyatt only to hastily jump to the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center when members alerted the board of the sustained campaign targeting the Hyatt here.
That turned what would have been another protest of a few dozen union reps and workers into a full-scale informational picket (video at sacurrent.com), marked by large frowny faces reminiscent of Mr. Yuk poison advisories. As the milling protestors quieted down beside the building, Grand Hyatt employee Elvia Claudio complained of the hotel’s 30-bed-per-day quotas for housekeepers and threats to fire employees who have reported related health injuries. “Because of these rooms, we’re injuring ourselves and having many problems with our health. Problems such as pain in our lower backs and our arms and our hands because of so much work,” she said. “Sometimes we don’t even have enough strength in our hands to hold a glass of water.”
The effort to unionize at the Hyatt can already count some victories. Following an April settlement between the hotel, the U.S. National Labor Relations Board, and the ambitious service-industry union UNITE HERE, the Grand Hyatt posted flyers at worker stations acknowledging the employees’ right to organize and hired back an employee who claimed he was dismissed for his pro-union activities.
According to UNITE HERE organizers, the current OSHA complaint requests fitted sheets to reduce the number of times housekeepers must lift 100-pound mattresses, long-handled mops and dusters so the workers don’t have to scrub on their hands and knees, and more reasonable room quotas. (30 is roughly double the industry average, they state.)
UTSA poli-sci professor Stephen Amberg said the labor history of San Antonio is not unlike those of other U.S. cities with heavy unionization early last century. It went off the rails when business forces launched concerted efforts to inflame racial tensions among low-income workers. While some unions — such as the integrated meat packers’ union — were able to press through, others disassembled.
“Even though Texas was one of the more industrially developed Southern states by the mid-20th century … it was still a state of white supremacy and one-party rule. The political and business leadership of this state was very hostile to unions,” Amberg said.
Union membership in San Antonio was triple today’s rate just 40 years ago. But with UNITE HERE winning difficult fights in cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston, San Antonio’s River Walk may be on the cusp of union revival.
While many in the city take for granted the huge gaps in pay that our service-industry economy delivers, it doesn’t have to be so, Amberg said. “That’s what the effect is as long as these jobs are unorganized, because it’s pretty clear the hotels won’t take care of people unless the employees exercise the right to form unions.”
As the university professors broke to return to their program (at meeting rooms next door at the Conference Center), they pledged not only not to return, but to work to organize other wings of academia against the Hyatt until UNITE HERE’s requests are met.
A request for an interview with the ASA’s higher-ups bagged us a browser reroute request to the following November 4 statement:
“When we negotiated our contract with the Hyatt San Antonio we thought we were driving our business to a hotel with good labor practices, that is, there was a labor peace agreement in effect at a new hotel and the workers were by all accounts ready to join the union. … ASA is prepared to make a decision not to return to any Hyatt properties in the future until this and all other outstanding organizing issues with UNITE HERE have been resolved.”•