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How did a hotel workers union beat Marriott International?

Liza Veale
Anand Singh with Unite Here members announcing the ratification of the contract with Marriott.

Oakland public school teachers ended their strike, last week, after winning some but not all of their demands. It was the latest in a year full of labor activism. To find out what it takes to strike and win, we break down one of the most successful fights of last year: the Marriott strike.

Larilou Carumba cleans rooms at the San Francisco Marriott Marquis. She got involved in her union the same way many people do: an organizer interrupted her and asked her to help.

Carumba’s union rep, who’s one of the paid staff members of Unite Here, was looking for possible leaders: people with natural charisma or influence. Carumba didn’t see herself that way and she wasn’t looking for trouble.

She eventually told her rep her whole story. How she was a nurse in the Philippines but had to start making more money when her husband died. She got a job working on a commercial ship, which put her out at sea for months at a time. She did it for her daughters, but they told her the distance wasn’t worth it.

“My daughter said that we don't have a father. We don't want to, to lose you,” says Carumba. “Even though we don't live an extravagant life, as long as you're with us.”

They came to the United States looking for something better, and she found work at the Marriott, just like the many immigrant women that are disproportionately represented in the hotel industry.

Carumba says cleaning rooms at the Marriott has been alright. It’s a union job, so she started at $21 per hour, rather than minimum wage, which is common for nonunion housekeeping jobs.

She also has job security and health benefits for her family. But, as the cost of living has risen in the Bay Area, the job isn’t enough to pay for housing and to save for retirement. As her union rep pointed out, while Carumba’s wages have stagnated, Marriott’s profits have surged in the last couple of years.

She started to see it the way her union rep did: “Why the company, the Mr. CEO, can have a raise and the small worker cannot?”

So Carumba agreed to help with the organizing drive, to get her co-workers to buy in just like she had. At that point, they had a year until their contracts would expire. So they had to time organize and get ready to strike if need be.

A contract worth striking for

Now, contracts are the bread and butter of unions. They enshrine how an employer is going to treat each and every worker. Unions have an opportunity to bargain for more when their contracts are up.

This time, Unite Here planned to demand a dramatically better contract from Marriott: more pay, preserved benefits, and a voice in the conversation about automation on the job. They also wanted panic buttons to protect housekeepers from assault and certain protections for workers who are in the country illegally.

Anand Singh, the president of Unite Here Local 2 says that if the union leadership had “encouraged a run of the mill kind of contract, it really wouldn't have flown with the membership here.”

Singh says they wanted a contract so good they knew they could probably only win it by using the one real weapon that workers have: the strike.

“It's a calculated risk,” says Singh, “but it's certainly a risk that workers take when they walk out on strike. It's a risk that we don't take lightly.”

There’s also a larger risk for union leaders. When strikes fail, they sink morale, not just for the workers who lost, but for workers watching everywhere who want better working conditions and feel like there’s nothing to be done about it.

“Unless workers make significant demands and put action behind those demands,” says Singh, “those forces get more and more powerful and workers have less of a voice.”

A union’s show of strength

Once contract negotiations were underway, the union held a rally as a show of power and to test whether workers would really show up. The rally was huge, which gave the union’s leaders the confidence to hold the line on their demands. But, Marriott didn’t budge. And the contract went unsigned.

So, on September 13, the union held a vote among all the workers, and 98% percent voted to authorize a strike — as strong of a mandate as you’re likely to get. They were ready.

On October 4th, nearly 2,500 employees walked out on October 4th and formed picket lines outside 7 San Francisco hotels owned by Marriott.

Carumba quickly embraced her role as a picket captain — keeping track of sign-in sheets, leading chants and keeping a steady stream of posts on social media. She even gave a few speeches.

“I have stage fright,” says Carumba, “I cannot talk when there is a crowd. But now, people say when I speak it’s like a magnet. It gives me more confidence.”

On the second week of the strike, a rally at one of the picket lines grew so big it blocked the street, which was illegal. 41 Unite Here members were arrested, cited with misdemeanors and released.

In the second month, city supervisors intervened and invited the company and union to a public meeting. The Supervisors hoped to mediate an end to the strike. But Marriott’s CEO rejected the invitation.

Instead, the company bussed in workers to keep the hotels running at minimum capacity, but they continued to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in canceled conferences.

Life on the picket line

Back at the picket line, strikes are their own form of labor. Marriott workers recieved, on average, $400 a week in exchange for picketting or doing other forms of strike support work for 30 hours a week— though the union says there were funds available for workers who did not participate in strike support work. These payments are funded by worker dues and community donations. The picket line is also social. Everyone sees a lot more of each other on the than they do going about their work.

“When we were working on inside, we just say hi and I don't even know their names. But when the strike started,” says Carumba, “the one who makes attitude with me becomes friendly with me. We're like a family.”

Picketing is not just a symbolic protest. The workers are there to stop customers from staying at the hotel. Brian Gipson is one of the workers manning an entrance to the Marriott Marquis downtown.

He says most customers are supportive and many are convinced to cancel their reservation. Some have brought food to the picket line.

Unite Here strategically chose the busiest time of the year in order to make the strike as painful as possible for Marriott because that pain is their leverage.

San Francisco was just one of 9 cities that participated in the strike. In order to have the option of doing a nationally coordinated strike, Unite Here spent years making it so that the contracts at every individual hotel would expire at the same time, so the strikes could happen in unison. As organizers like to say, a fist is stronger than a finger.

Gipson says he wants to go back to work. His throat is hoarse, and the incessant chanting and drumming are truly deafening. But he says he’s here for his coworkers.

“Sometimes I get emotional about this,” he says. “I’m really passionate about regular people just having the means to live. A lot of these people are going week to week in life. They need food on their table, literally. You know really is tough.”

Larrilou Carumba knew a couple of co-workers that did cross the picket line. She didn’t have a lot of patience for them.

“We're also fighting for what they would have and it's unfair that they were there and we’re outside,” she says. “Their life inside when we come back will be hell because a lot of people are really very angry with them.”

Who won and why

As October turned into November, Marriott agreed to most of the workers' demands except for the biggest ones: wages and health care. So, the workers picketed through the smoke of the Paradise fires, through Thanksgiving and then nearly a week of straight rain. Marriott may have hoped the workers resolve would crumble, but it didn’t. They stayed out.

Both sides are pretty tight-lipped with the details of what went on at the bargaining table. We don’t know why Marriott finally caved — they never responded to request for comment. Maybe it was the Christmas decorations the workers started putting up at the picket line. Maybe everyone just really wanted it to end so they could take a break for the holidays. All we know is finally on December 3rd, Unite Here announced that they’d won.

The scene at the press announcement was tearful and ecstatic. Members and their children and supporters kept breaking into spontaneous rounds of chanting. People looked delirious with relief.

According to Anand Singh, the president of Local 2, Marriott agreed to meet every single one of the bargaining team’s demands. They put the tentative agreement up for the workers to vote on and it was approved by 98%. They could finally go back to work.

The Marriott strike was historic in its wins and its multi-city scope. So why were they able pull all that off in an era when — until very, very recently — strikes were rare? What’s changing?

First of all, Unite Here is an unusual union, according to Harold Meyerson, executive editor of The American Prospect and longtime writer about workers issues.

“Very few unions prepare and deal with the rank and file members as painstakingly as the hotel union does,” says Meyerson. “That was definitely part of the Marriott strikes and historically that's been part of successful strikes.”

Lessons for the future

Meyerson wishes other unions operated like Unite Here, but he says most don’t develop the kind of staff, budget and commitment to do what they do.

It takes more to win nowadays. Pro-business, corporate politicians have eroded the laws that protect workers and unions, so the odds are stacked against them. That’s why, over the last few decades, instead of investing more and more in organizing — like Unite Here — unions have put more of their resources into lobbying and getting pro-labor politicians elected.

“It’s a circular thing,” says Meyerson, “because one reason unions invest in elections is the way to change labor law — so that strikes become a more viable again — is to elect people who will change labor law in your favor.”

But that hasn’t been going tremendously well. Labor laws have only gotten weaker. Some say the tipping point was 1981 when President Reagan fired 11,000 Air Traffic Controllers for going on strike.

“Companies began just firing workers during strikes,” says Meyerson, “and strikes almost vanished as a weapon up until the last year or two.”

Meyerson attributes that change to the larger political climate. He says it’s “in the air;” evidenced by the Democratic Party moving left. He says more and more Americans are aware of growing economic inequality and of the stagnating wages that workers have endured for the last 30 or 40 years, broadly speaking.

“It really is, perhaps, moving into a new era, which is something America badly needs to do.”

Strikes work best when the public is on the workers’ side and when workers are intensively organized. They don’t all turn out like the Marriott did. The recent Oakland teachers strike was disappointing to a lot of people, though they won a much better contract than the one the district proposed before the strike. But the fight to better fund Oakland schools was always bigger than one contract with the district — it’s also about deep, state-level reforms. And probably nothing better organizes teachers for that fight — or for anything they face — than the experience of striking.

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Local 2 members were required to picket in order to recieved strike funds when in fact members could participate in other forms of strike support work and there were funds available for people who didn't do support work as well.


Liza got her start in radio with KALW's Audio Academy. Now, she is KALW's econmy reporter and a mentor for in the KALW Audio Academy.