Last week, UNITE-HERE Local 11 announced it agreed to a contract with the Sheraton Park Hotel. The agreement boosts members pay over the next few years, while also augmenting employer support for pensions and health care.
Local 11 – which represents housekeepers, front desk clerks, cooks, and dishwashers – had been picketing the hotel for weeks – culminating in a carefully choreographed and illegal shutdown of the Katella/Harbor intersection on the opening day of The NAMM Show on January 24.
The union had been demanding Sheraton Park increases if hourly wage for Local 11 members from $16.82 to $25, but ultimately settled for gradual increase to $21.81 by the expiration of this new contract on November 30, 2022.
The hotel will also add $38 a month to its contribution to members’ pensions, increase its support for employee health care, and equip housekeepers with “panic buttons”: electronic devices enabling them to summon help if being harassed by a hotel guest.
The approved contract also includes extended maternity leave and quicker access to light-duty for pregnant workers; increased pay for tipped workers such as bartenders, bell hops and busboys; and protections for employees who are undocumented immigrants or otherwise facing issues with their immigration status.
Our sources say the terms of the agreement were proferred to the to the union prior to the protest – but UNITE-HERE’s leadership wanted to stage its theatrical “civil disobedience” protest on NAMM opening day to convince members that such extreme measures “work.”
Naturally, Local 11 are happy to receive an hourly wage increase of 30% over nearly four years and get a bump in the employer pension contribution. It’s a good thing when people are able to take home more money – whether it’s due to wage increases, reduced cost of living or both. Pro-growth Republican tax and regulatory reforms of the past two years have produced record economic growth, job formation and labor force participation and the first real wage growth in many years. Unemployment among Latinos has hit a record low. Median blue-collar wages are rising for the first time in nearly 20 years.
At the same time, this agreement raises a larger question: what is the upper wage limit for lower-skill jobs, especially in the context of the revolution in automation and robotics impacting every economic sector.
The hotel industry is already utilizing various strategies to offset rising labor costs. Guests are encouraged to forgo having their linens and towels changed on a daily basis – although this is usually cloaked under the rubric protecting the environment. Hotels offer loyalty points to guests who limit housekeeping visits to once every two or three days.
More hotels are adopting smart technology enabling them to detect when guests aren’t in their rooms – permitting the efficient utilization of housekeeping staff. This also protects housekeeping staff from potential harassment by guests. The upshot is housekeeping levels of service can be met by fewer employees (albeit better paid employees).
A growing number of hotels are installing kiosks in their lobbies so guests can check themselves in. Biometric methods will eventually supplant card keys for room entry. Hotels are already using robots to perform room service and bell hop functions. Robot bellhops and automated kiosks don’t call in sick or get injured on the job, collect pensions, require health insurance, workers compensation or file lawsuits. They don’t picket or go on strike. That’s just reality.
People like interacting with other human beings. We’re social animals. Hotels will never be completed automated – who wants to stay in a sterile, robotic environment? But the automation revolution is enabling hotels – like any other industry – to provide the current or enhanced levels of service with fewer employees.
Where Is UNITE-HERE’s “Aspire” Program?
This may be an opportune time for labor organizations like UNITE-HERE to re-examine their mission. Certainly, they ought to vigorously represent the interests of their members. At the same time, shouldn’t that include helping members climb up the economic ladder – and eventually leave the union? There’s dignity in all work, but do UNITE-HERE leaders really want their members to spend their lives cleaning hotel rooms? Where is UNITE-HERE Local 11’s version of the Disney Aspire program launched by the Disneyland Resort?
The Disney Aspire program allows cast members to enroll in a network of schools offering a broad range of courses and programs from obtaining their high school diploma completion to earning a Master’s degree. Disney pays the tuition for cast members up front and reimburses them for the cost of books and materials. The program includes online courses to provide flexibility and help cast members balance work and school. It also offers individual coaching to ensure participants have the support and guidance they need through each step of the program, from enrollment all the way to graduation.
Cast members aren’t required to pay Disney back, or even remain with the company after earning their degrees or certificates. A cast member can quit the day after earning his or her degree.
On one hand, this obviously an investment in the future of the company – cast members will contribute more to Disney’s success as they acquire more education and skill, and rise in the company’s ranks. While Disney has a strong tradition of promoting from within, it also recognizes that many – if not most – cast members who take advantage of the Aspire program will leave the company to pursue career opportunities elsewhere.
The point is that Disneyland doesn’t envision cast members as always remaining there as ride operators, cashiers, cooks or what have you – but instead is actively helping them open doors to greater opportunity and a higher standard of living.
UNITE-HERE’s members should ask themselves what more their union leadership could be doing to help them move beyond being housekeepers, busmen or front desk clerks and into employment with greater earning potential. Rather than staging choreographed protests for the political benefit of themselves and their elected official allies, perhaps Local 11’s leadership could direct that energy into helping their members move into middle class employment. That could be more productive than street antics and lobbying for destructive public policies that undermines the economic well-being of their members.