Thursday, May 11, 2006
In the game of high-stakes negotiations, the subtlest of gestures may portend a sea of significance. So when officials at the Hyatt Regency in Monterey recently informed union leaders that they wouldn’t be available to sit down for labor contract talks until June, that left organizers wondering what message hotel officials were really trying to send.
“Normally, we’d be bargaining with the Hyatt Regency by now,” says Mark Weller, an organizer with UNITE HERE Local 483, which represents about half of the Peninsula’s hotel workers. “This is a first indication that things might be different this year.”
In April, union leaders asked hotel officials to meet to start hammering out a new contract that would cover the Hyatt’s 275 resort workers. But officials for Monterey County’s largest resort hotel told organizers that this year they wouldn’t be ready to talk until sometime in June.
It’s a risky strategy. Hyatt’s current labor contracts expire July 31. Postponing negotiations leaves both sides with less time to iron out prickly sticking points. By the looks of things, there’ll probably be plenty of those.
In February, UNITE HERE hospitality workers across the nation kicked off a national campaign to raise salaries and benefits for workers. Union leaders declared that the most intense fights will happen inside conference rooms, where hotel officials and employee representatives across the nation will soon face off in a push-and-pull over salaries, health care and benefits.
“We expect negotiations to be tough in all cities,” says Russ Melaragni, Hyatt’s director of labor relations in Chicago. “That’s the nature of it.”
When asked why Hyatt postponed talks until June, Russ downplayed the move. “It’s just a matter of timing,” he explained.
Meanwhile, unions are playing their own version of the timing game. Hotel workers are waging a nationwide campaign to shed light on the truth about how much hotel workers are paid and what kind of working conditions they face.
Last month, UNITE HERE released a survey signaling that hotel housekeepers have the riskiest job in the hospitality industry, while on average they earn $17,340 a year.
According to the report, titled “Creating Luxury, Enduring Pain,” housekeeping work is becoming even more dangerous as the industry rushes to offer guests higher levels of poshness and luxury.
Jing Wright, 52, a housekeeper at the Hyatt Regency since 1994, explains some of these changes as she rapidly cleaned a mussed-up room at the Hyatt Regency Resort last week.
Because of her seniority, Wright cleans only 13 rooms a day. The problem, she says, is that often there isn’t enough time to clean all 13 rooms in eight hours because new room amenities are added all the time.
These include extra pillows, heavier linens and thicker “luxury” bed mattresses.
“Now they’re planning a big remodel of the hotel,” Wright says, her voice rising as she huffs and puffs to make two beds in about five minutes. “I’ve seen one of the completed rooms and the bathroom has wall-to-wall mirrors.
“Can you imagine how long it’s going to take to wipe all that down and make sure it’s just perfect?”
Under the last contract negotiated in 2003, Wright makes $11.10 an hour, the same as all the other housekeepers at the hotel. A room with two beds at the Hyatt costs $229 a night.
On Jan. 8, Wright fell hard when she rushed to clean one last room before the end of her shift. A cart full of cleaning materials that she was trying to turn quickly in the hallway fell on her arm and part of her torso.
She’s back on the job now, but Wright relies on pain pills to get through the day.
Wright says that of the 63 housekeepers employed at the Hyatt, 11 have been injured on the job in the last year.
“Most people don’t realize all the work that goes into cleaning a room,” she says. “It takes a toll on your body, especially if you’ve been doing this a long time.”
Weller says housekeeper injuries are high at most hotels on the Peninsula, and that’s one fact labor negotiators will raise with hotel officials when they sit down to negotiate a new contract. Another big issue will be more money for workers and better health benefits.
“The family who owns Hyatt has 11 billionaires in it,” Weller says. “They can afford it.”