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What Will It Take to Beat the Bosses at the Hilton Hotel?

On November 9 a 100-person delegation of housekeepers, cooks, servers, front-desk agents, and other workers occupied the Hilton’s main lobby and demanded that the general manager recognize the union.

Ben Fredericks

November 23, 2017
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The union drive had attained the critical mass of support necessary to “go public,” and the workers did just that. In addition to demanding that management recognize UNITE HERE, workers have also filed for recognition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

The Hilton workers have taken a courageous and militant stand, affirming their dignity and demanding respect. Housekeepers have decried the back-breaking physical toll of cleaning 30 to 40 rooms in a single shift; cooks have expressed indignation at being chronically understaffed. Indeed, one of the most common complaints is that each worker is forced to do multiple jobs far outside of their own job description. But while enthusiasm is high, and the Hilton workers are well organized, the direct struggle with the hotel bosses has just begun.

As anticipated, hotel management has already begun to employ its usual anti-union tricks: captive audience meetings; promises of promotions; discipline against pro-union workers; lies about the union. There’s no predicting what hotel management will do next to scare workers and prevent the union. To win union recognition and ultimately a favorable contract, every union committee-member in the hotel must be ready to fight.

What’s at stake?

The hotel bosses – part of the broader capitalist class – hate the idea of a union for two basic reasons: on one level, they know that if Hilton workers achieve union recognition and win a contract, the workers will get a larger percentage of the hotel’s profits. At the same time, they hate unions equally because they allow workers a certain degree of control over the flow of production. Unionized workers can enforce safety standards, push for policies like a union hiring hall (which would force management to hire workers from within the hotel first), and put their own imprint on how the hotels function day to day.

Historically, workers from around the world have risen up many times and in many forms to make society better. Haitian slaves rose up to free themselves from slavery. Workers in Mexico, Cuba, and across Latin America have fought for freedom and made revolutions. African-American workers in the U.S. have risen up in recent years to protest racism and demand equality. The struggle at the Stamford Hilton must be viewed in this broader context of working people rising up to fight for justice.

Organizing with a strategy to win

It is impossible to know how fiercely hotel management at the Hilton will resist unionization. Many workers no doubt hope that management will “respect the law” and recognize the union peacefully. While that possibility cannot be ruled out, the hotel bosses have dug in their heels by hiring three union-busting firms to break the drive. In such a scenario, workers can expect ramped-up intimidation, bribery, and even the firing of prominent worker leaders. If, indeed, the bosses do try and break the union, how should we respond?

The committee leaders, shop stewards, and UNITE-HERE staff are doing the crucial work of building the structure of a worker’s organization. The plan is that when the NLRB gets around to holding an official union election, the workers will be prepared to vote overwhelmingly for the union.

While preparing for a union vote is essential, the ultimate power of workers does not come from our ability to vote but from our ability to take action in the workplace and disrupt business as usual. An example of that power is when workers form delegations to the management and temporarily shut down certain parts of the hotel.

Ultimately, to win lasting gains in Stamford, workers need to be prepared to strike. Strikes are the primary means for workers to demonstrate our power and pressure the bosses to give in to demands.

A well-organized strike would include an elected, recallable strike committee of workers that would communicate directly with the membership about all aspects of the strike and negotiations. To be most effective, a strike would aim to shut down the workplace completely and build picket lines with workers and community members from across the city.

Support the Stamford hotel workers!

In today’s climate of anti-immigrant and anti-union attacks, the hotel workers who are organizing in Stamford — the majority of whom are immigrants — should be welcomed with solidarity. Every supporter of immigrant rights, every supporter of workers rights, should spread word about these brave people and prepare to support them as the struggle intensifies. Their fight is our fight!

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Ben Fredericks

Ben is a member of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and has been active in anti-imperialist and labor activism.

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