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Workers Rising

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Issue: 54 Section: Labour Geography: Ontario Toronto Topics: labour, social movements, immigration

August 18, 2008

Workers Rising

Hotel union strikes, rallies and demands social change; gets contracts

by Geordie Gwalgen Dent

UNITE HERE's forays into community activism are what most set it apart from other unions. Photo: Unite Here

“I feel great,” mused Abdul Husseini, a server at the Holiday Inn restaurant on Toronto’s airport strip. On July 15, he was in the middle of a hotel walkout, part of a series of spontaneous rolling strikes aimed at securing an agreement in three Toronto airport hotels. Two weeks and one strike later, tentative agreements had been reached at all three hotels.

Victory for Husseini’s union, UNITE HERE Local 75, was the result of an intense and aggressive campaign, targeting the remaining three member hotels without a contract: the Radisson, Holiday Inn and Fairmont Royal York. Most of the UNITE HERE hotels in Toronto had already settled with the Local 75 “standard contract,” according to Husseini, but Westmont Hospitality Group, who owns or operates these three hotels, had been holding out since 2007, leaving their staff some of the worst paid on the airport strip. “Cooks in my restaurant are paid $4 less than other hotels,” said Husseini.

Few unions have such a high proportion of immigrants as members. “We’re part of the movement for immigrant rights in Toronto and the hotel industry,” says a researcher with UNITE HERE Local 75 in Toronto. Photo: Unite Here

Working standards in the hotel industry, where most workers are from immigrant communities, are not high to begin with. Heavy workloads, low job security and exploitation are rampant, according to union representatives. “Most days, I don't have time to take a break,” Radisson Suite Hotel room attendant Delsie Morgan was quoted as saying in the Toronto Star. Morgan was making
$13.17 an hour compared with $15 at other hotels.

At the same time, Toronto hotels are enjoying a period of strong economic growth. Westmont Hospitality Group, the Radisson Hotel, the Holiday Inn and the Greater Toronto Hotel Association did not return calls to the Dominion and publicly refused to comment on the strikes. However, speaking in the Toronto Star, Andrew Weir, Vice-president of Communications for Tourism Toronto stated that “hotel occupancy rates were up three per cent in May and another one per cent in June compared to last year.”

Even given the David and Goliath scenario, UNITE HERE’s July actions were unusually militant: spontaneous, rolling strikes are rare in the hospitality industry. More often strike-notice is used as a pressure tactic; it also gives the employer time to prepare for the possibility of a strike. Without notice, managers are left scrambling to cover positions, clean rooms and attempt to calm dissatisfied customers.

If tough tactics like these seem out of the ordinary for a hotel union, it’s not the only thing that UNITE HERE does differently. The seemingly quick victory in July is part of a long-term strategy to engage communities in making change.

Unique membership, leadership

When asked why he and his co-workers decided to organize with Local 75, Husseini says that “Local 75 is very well known in Toronto.” Husseini, who used to belong to the Steel Workers Union, says that UNITE HERE is much better than other unions when it comes to “dealing with communities.” “They provide services to their members: money for training, culture funds…they provide help for the young.”

Few unions have such a high proportion of immigrants as members. “We’re part of the movement for immigrant rights in Toronto and the hotel industry,” says J.J. Feuser, a researcher with UNITE HERE Local 75. “Seventy per cent of our workers are immigrants to Canada.” The union also says 48 per cent of members are women and 53 per cent are visible minorities.

“It’s sometimes an interesting challenge organizing people from different communities with low union density,” says Feuser. “We have to be good at making people absorb the fact that they have rights.

“Our focus is on developing leadership in the rank and file. In every case, workers sit on the negotiating committee at every level of negotiations. Our executive board and solidarity committee…works with the community and take on the role of organizer in the workplace,” says Feuser. This approach empowers the communities and individuals involved with the union, and according to UNITE HERE organizers, makes the union more powerful in the workplace and beyond. “Increasingly we can act on facing problems in the hotels, political fights, helping our members, etcetera,” says Feuser. “We can do that on a dime.”

One of the fights UNITE HERE locals in Canada and the US took on last year is the “Hotel Workers Rising” campaign. The aim of the campaign is to improve working conditions across the board, but most significantly, to have all hotel-worker contracts settled on the same calendar year: 2010.

Though contracts at unionized hotels are common, the fact that so many are now coming up for renewal in 2010 means that UNITE HERE workers are in position to undertake connected labour actions across the continent. A general strike or attempt to increase wages across Canada and the US could be in the works. “[This is] continent-wide: Boston, Honolulu, and Los Angeles,” says Feuser.

With 100,000 of UNITE HERE’s 450,000 North American members being exclusively hotel workers, settling all hotel workers' contracts by 2010 would be a significant accomplishment. According to Feuser, the union is already well on its way.

“Local 75 represents 40 hotels in Toronto. Thirty have been negotiated until 2010,” he says. “The goal is to have the other 10 negotiated to that date as well.”

“Broader issues defining the union”

Andrea van der Heever, an organizer with UNITE HERE based in New Haven, Connecticut, believes that the union’s forays into community activism are what most set it apart from other unions. “I think what distinguishes UNITE HERE is that…the union is not confined to conflicts at the workplace. The union has a role in where people live and in communities. Local 75 is at the forefront in transforming the way a lot of locals are looking at their communities. The broader issues are starting to define the union.”

In Toronto, these "broader issues" include fighting gentrification and demanding rights for immigrants.

Local 75 has begun influencing commercial developments in Rexdale, one of the poorest communities in Toronto. Guled Warsame, an organizer with the union, says that in December 2006 communities in Rexdale found out about an open-house for Woodbine Live: a major expansion of the local race track. "People started asking about local benefits,” says Warsame. “The first big meeting [of coalition partners] was in May 2007; over 600 people came.” Then the Community Organizing for Responsible Development (CORD) campaign was launched. UNITE HERE local 75, the Toronto Social Planning Council and other organizations signed on to support the campaign.

CORD’s goal is to obtain concessions for the Rexdale community. The campaign is modeled after one in the United States in which “everything that the neighbourhood wanted got written into the agreement,” including provisions for parking, housing, hospital debt, jobs, training and asthma reduction, says Van der Heever, who worked with the CORD initiative in New Haven.

When asked about the objectives of Toronto’s CORD campaign, Sima Sahar Zerehi, Communications Specialist with Local 75, says that the Rexdale community has similar goals. “We have a huge shopping list; it’s exhaustive. More jobs, better services, youth services, etc.”

Summer of hope

Beyond its participation in the CORD campaign in Rexdale, UNITE HERE has also joined the “Summer of Hope” campaign.

“The Summer of Hope is a campaign aimed at bringing together members across Toronto to fight for the rights of immigrant workers,” says Zerehi. Tactics have included the union job actions as well as a rally at City Hall on July 31 entitled, 'We Are the New Majority'.

Feuser believes that UNITE HERE’s bargaining tactics, community work and high immigrant membership will eventually gain the support of most workers in Toronto. “It’s in everyone’s interest that service industry jobs are good jobs. Manufacturing jobs are decreasing [in Ontario] and service sector jobs…these are the jobs that are going to be the jobs that stay.”

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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