By M.F. Sánchez
BU News Service
BOSTON — Employees from Marriott operated hotels in the Boston area chanted “No contracts, no peace” at a demonstration last Saturday, as they walked down Huntington Avenue and into Boylston Street to protest for higher wages and job security.
Brian Lang, president of Local 26, joined the protest along with union members from New York and Rhode Island. He promised that his organization, which represents workers in the hospitality industry in the states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, would not rest until workers’ demands were met.
“For six months they haven’t heard us, they haven’t understood, they played dumb. I’m happy to report that now they’re taking us seriously. Now they’re starting to listen, now we have to push them harder to get what it takes for one job to be enough,” Lang said.
The rally took place 17 days after employees from seven different hotels operated by Marriott International in the Boston area went on strike. On Oct. 3 at 6 a.m., over 1,500 workers in Boston, ranging from maids to bartenders, walked out of their jobs demanding higher wages.
Protests in the hospitality industry have been going on for a while. Back in June, employees staged a picket line and in September the nationwide strike was authorized by the unions. The rallies and subsequent marches are an effort by the unions to put public pressure on the hotel giant.
Rally organizers invited hotel workers to speak directly to their colleagues in Amharic, Spanish and Arabic. Courtney Leonard, a server at the Westin Boston Waterfront, explained her reasons to protest.
“I’m on strike because one job should be enough,” Leonard said.
Hotel chains owned by Marriott International pay housekeepers an average hourly rate of $10.32. Other positions such as front desk attendant and bartenders make an average of $10.98 and $9.89 an hour respectively.
While Marriott is the richest hotel chain in the country and its international total revenue for 2017 was $22.894 billion, employees often work more than one job to survive in some of the most expensive cities in the U.S.
“We work for Marriott, which is the richest hotel company in the world. They make more than enough so that they can pay us, so that one job can be enough,” Leonard said. “I will be on strike as long as it takes until we win, because I know we are going to win.”
Boston is the ninth most expensive city in which to rent or own a home. According to NerdWallet, the median rent price for a two-bedroom apartment in Boston is $2,669 a month. The cost of living in Boston is 39.7 percent above the U.S. average.
The employees demonstrating are members of Unite Here, a union that helped in early contract negotiations with Marriott but later found itself locked out. Boston unions are not the only ones protesting. Around 7,000 other hotel workers from across the country, all the way from Rhode Island to Hawaii, are also joining demonstrations asking for higher wages and job security.
Among workers’ main concerns is Marriot’s new program “Green Choice,” a part of the hotel’s environmental initiative that encourages guests to delay room services such as laundry. The program has cut housekeeper hours and resulted in lower wages for workers.
Job loss due to automation and the lack of updated sexual harassment policies are also on the list of issues that hotel workers want to see addressed.
Union AFSCME president, Lee Saunders, also took part in the rally and told workers that they were part of a long tradition of activists.
“Dr. King travelled to Memphis and ultimately gave his life in support of sanitation workers because he understood the connection between labor rights, civil rights, human rights and economic rights. All of us get that. It’s too bad that the Marriott corporation doesn’t get it, so we’re gonna have to teach them something,” Saunders said.
It is still unclear how much longer the strike will last, as employees will soon reach a month without a paycheck, but they say they are in for the long haul.
At the rally, Sean M. O’Brien, president of the union Teamsters Local 25, promised that Teamsters would not provide any goods or services to the Marriot chain hotels while the strike continues. They union representes more than 12,000 members in the Boston area, who perform contracted services for different companies including Marriot International.
O’Brien also presented Local26 with a $5,000 donation to their Strike Assisted Fund, which provides financial support for workers on strike, to help them buy groceries, pay mortgage and utility bills.
The fund was created in Oct. 2016, when Local 26 union members working at Harvard University dining hall services went on strike, following months of failed contract negotiations.
After 20 days of protests and shutting down dining halls across the university, the union successfully bargained all of their demands under a five-year contract that included $35,000 yearly salaries and better health care options. Local 26 is attempting to replicate the same results for hotel workers.
In the meantime, Marriott International has not stopped providing its regular services and it has released statements declaring their disappointment with the strikes. It is still too early to assess the financial impact the strikes have had on their business.
Mayor Martin Walsh and gubernatorial candidate Jay Gonzalez made surprise appearances in support of the unions. The mayor offered to serve as a mediator and invited Marriott and union representatives to meet at his office in City Hall.
“I have one message for Marriott: It’s over,” Mayor Wals said. “The time has ended. It’s time to negotiate.”