Worker rights are a feminist issue and should be considered as such, but often they get short shrift in feminist spaces. Let’s not forget that International Women’s Day started as International Working Women’s Day, and that some of the earliest feminist agitators were fighting in the front lines of factory strikes during the Industrial Revolution. Fierce seamstresses and other workers striking for better working conditions inspired wealthier women, some of whom decided to take up their cause after being inspired by seeing them hold their ground for days and weeks, even in the face of intimidation from police as well as thugs hired to break their strikes. Women involved in the fight for suffrage also helped organise women’s unions, and played an active role in labour advocacy.
The connections between labour and feminism should be obvious; many workers are women, women are often mistreated in the workplace, and fighting for not just fair wages but fair conditions should be an obvious extension of feminist ethics. This holds especially true in the case of low-wage workers, who are particularly vulnerable to abuse. Low-wage workers in agriculture, the hospitality industry, health care, and among household staffs tend to be immigrant women, some of whom are making less than minimum wage, many of whom are afraid to report any abuses they experience in the workplace because they need to retain their jobs and are terrified of harassment or deportation.
Yet, the modern feminist movement has been falling down on the job when it comes to supporting workers; there’s a lot of discussion about how women can ‘have it all,’ which focuses on aspirational middle class ideals of success and says virtually nothing about the lives of low-income women. There’s also a lot of conversation about the wage gap, which is an undeniable problem, but it’s a problem that hits women of colour and women with disabilities particularly hard, especially at the low end of the payscale, and that’s not discussed as frequently.
There’s less discussion of the grueling working conditions for the immigrant women who make the United States tick, moving silently and invisibly through our lives. The women who get up before dawn to pick produce in the fields of the Central Valley, the women who process poultry in crowded, unhealthy conditions in the Midwest, the women who lug heavy cleaning carts down the carpeted hallways of hotels from coast to coast, cleaning room after room after room and leaving chocolates on the pillow as they go.
Union UNITE HERE aims to change that with a nationwide boycott targeting Hyatt hotels which started today. The union has been involved in anti-Hyatt actions across the United States on a primarily local and regional level, but today, it’s taking the boycott center stage and demanding that Hyatt treat its workers better. And the union is being joined in a coalition that includes major feminist and LGBQT leaders among others; this is a collective effort to fight for workers that goes beyond labour organisers, and aims to include everyone with a stake in the fight.
Why Hyatt? Hyatt is one of the worst hotel employers in the United States, and in fact you can go vote them the worst if you’re so inclined. Hyatt engages in a number of employment practices that should give anyone room for pause, let alone a feminist.
- Contract workers. Hyatt, like many companies in the United States, claims to provide generous benefits for employees, labourwashing its working conditions to suggest it’s a great place to spend your money if you’re concerned about worker welfare. Too bad those benefits are only available for employees, not contract workers. Hyatt relies heavily on subcontractors across the United States, firing regular personnel to bring in ‘temps’ who work for months or years while being treated as second-class citizens. They’re paid less than other Hyatt staff, not allowed to participate in Hyatt events, and, of course, deprived of all those lovely benefits.
- Sexual and racial harassment. Housekeepers at Hyatt have reported a number of incidences of harassment, most notably in the case of the Reyes sisters, who had their faces plastered to an image of bikini-clad women. When they protested, they were fired.
- Heavier and heavier workloads. Contract workers at some Hyatts are expected to clean as many as 30 rooms in an eight hour shift, regardless of how trashed the rooms are. They’re often not supplied with the basic tools they need; in California, for example, housekeepers are fighting for long-handled mops so they don’t need to clean floors on their hands and knees. Hyatt is also resisting requests for fitted sheets to make it easier to make beds.
- OSHA violations. Hyatt is facing over $100,000 in OSHA violations at a number of properties across the United States. That doesn’t really suggest it’s a safe and healthy place to work, does it?
- Attacks on labour organisers. Hyatt has intimidated workers who attempt to get involved with unions; that includes directing heat lamps at protesters in Chicago during a heat wave.
- Need time off? You won’t get it at Hyatt. A dishwasher was ordered to return to work three days after getting a C-section. Another worker who asked for time off to visit a terminally ill family member was informed she would need a doctor’s note. Afraid of losing her job, she didn’t make the trip, and he died alone.
The boycott aims to connect people with the labour movement, to get them realising that these issues are important. Labour violations at Hyatt disproportionately impact women, and there’s an intersectional aspect given that so many of them are from South America and Southeast Asia. Better working conditions at Hyatt would force other hotel chains to follow suit because Hyatt is an industry leader, which would make hospitality work safer for everyone. Treating employees with dignity and respect while providing them with safe working conditions should be basic, but apparently Hyatt needs to be shamed into doing it, and it’s high past time for feminists to join that fight.
Middle class members of the feminist and LGBQT movements primarily interact with hotels as guests, not employees, and it’s notable that Hyatt among many other chains is advertising heavily to the LGBQT market to take advantage of a large group of people perceived to have disposable income. But there are also feminists and LGBQT people working at Hyatt hotels, and they need the solidarity and support of their more moneyed counterparts; it is time to deconstruct the privileged face of the mainstream movement to make it more inclusive, and to truly fight for liberation for all.
Kim Gandy, Vice President of the Feminist Majority Foundation, thinks this is a feminist issue, and she’s joining forces with UNITE HERE and the Hyatt boycott. So are groups like the National Organization for Women and National Women’s Health Network. Gandy has identified an escalation in abusive tactics at Hyatt properties and thinks it’s time for feminists to pick another hotel chain…and I agree.