Workers Win at the Hilton Garden Inn

(Opinion Piece from Workers’ Center Leader/UAW Employee, Carl Feuer, on Hotel Campaign and Recent Hilton Victory)–The Tompkins County Workers’ Center is passionate about promoting worker empowerment and worker rights, including the right to a living wage.

Hotel workers are a central focus of our effort, and the reason for this should not surprise anyone. Hotel workers in Ithaca, particularly housekeepers, typically start at $7.15/hour, do grueling work and often are at the whim of untrained, unfair and harsh supervisors. From reports we have received from almost a score of workers, these conditions are no less true at the Hilton Garden Inn than they are at other Ithaca-area hotels, apart from the unionized Statler Hotel.

Most workers at these hotels, moreover, feel powerless to change things and often are too fearful to do more than grouse among themselves or just to family and friends. A lousy job is still a job, and workers know too well how quickly they can lose that job. Often they prefer to leave and try something else rather than try to change things, hence the huge turnover rates at the hotels.

But worker empowerment in the local hotel industry took a significant step forward last year when Michelle Lopez, a housekeeper at the Hilton Garden Inn for two years, came to the Workers’ Center to ask for help after what she and we felt was an unfair termination.

She was asserting her right to fair treatment, and we attempted to assist her. The Workers’ Center contacted management at the hotel on her behalf but were told that while they respected our work they were unwilling to dialogue further on what happened to Lopez.

Her only recourse at that point was to file federal charges. Because she was an outspoken workplace advocate for worker rights and because we understood management had illegally admonished her for talking with co-workers about the potential of unionization, it appeared that her firing violated the National Labor Relations Act. The Act prevents employer retaliation against workers who take concerted action at the workplace to improve conditions, including advocating for unionization.

It is unfortunate that this charge was not upheld by the National Labor Relations Board, mostly because co-workers were afraid to come forward or provide corroborating testimony. But the investigation by federal authorities nonetheless did uncover other attempts by the Hilton Garden Inn to strip workers of their right under federal law to talk among themselves and take concerted action to improve workplace conditions.

As a penalty for this violation the hotel was forced to inform workers about their federally guaranteed right to take concerted action and to speak freely about workplace conditions. I’m glad that Hilton General Manager Jim Bouderau (“Partial victory for whom in Hilton NLRB case?” March 11) sees this as one good thing to come out of this incident. It is a good thing. But it’s unfortunate that it took federal action to force a big corporation to inform and educate employees about their rights.

I don’t know what worker enhancement programs have been cut, as Bouderau reports, because of the small amount of money Hilton Garden Inn paid in legal fees, and I doubt that either educating workers about their rights or paying a living wage were among them. But if enhanced worker education was one of the results, I think this was money well spent.

Carl Feuer is on the Workers’ Center Steering Committee, and he also works with UAW Local 2300.