UMNS — They prayed at the picket line, listened to workers’ stories, sent delegations to meet with management and supported a boycott.
So when UNITE HERE, the union of hospitality workers in the United States and Canada, recently reached a tentative labor agreement with the Hyatt Hotels Corp., United Methodists were pleased.
This was a David and Goliath fight.
The Rev. Israel Alvaran, who helped organize denominational support in northern California, said he was inspired by workers willing to take risks and make sacrifices so a global corporation would hear their concerns. “This was a David and Goliath fight,” he declared.
The Rev. C.J. Hawking, a United Methodist clergywoman and executive director of Arise, Chicago, agreed that the workers “really put up a valiant fight.” She said two other hotel chains, Starwood and Hilton, already had signed agreements with workers to provide safe-working conditions and limit outsourcing.
July 1 agreement
The agreement reached July 1 will go into effect upon the settlement and ratification of union contracts by Hyatt associates in San Francisco, Honolulu, Los Angeles and Chicago, according to UNITE HERE. Key provisions include retroactive wage increases and a fair process mechanism for a union vote.
UNITE HERE will end its global boycott of Hyatt when the contracts are ratified.
UNITE HERE will end its global boycott of Hyatt when the contracts are ratified. Hyatt agreed to a fair process for workers in some hotels immediately, but not in other hotels, according to Ross Hyman, who was assigned by the AFL-CIO to work with religious supporters in Chicago. “In those hotels, the boycott will continue, even though the global boycott has ended,” he clarified.
Both the California-Nevada and Northern Illinois conferences of The United Methodist Church officially have supported the hotel workers. That’s in keeping with the denomination’s Social Principles and resolutions said John Hill, who oversees work on economic and environmental justice for the denomination’s General Board of Church & Society.
Hill pointed out that those principles are clear about rights of workers, including the need for a living wage and the right to bargain collectively. Whether they provide housekeeping services in hotels or harvest crops on farms, “we take our lead from the workers who are struggling to improve their own lives and conditions,” Hill said.
Chicago picket lines
In the Chicago area, about 7,000 Hyatt workers had been without a contract since Aug. 31, 2009. The economic boycott there targeted the Park Hyatt on the Magnificent Mile, Hyatt Regency on Wacker Drive and the Hyatt O’Hare.
The Rev. Teran Loeppke, a Northern Illinois deacon, wrote the legislation the conference adopted in 2011 that created a Hyatt Boycott Monitoring & Organizing Committee and supported the worker-led boycott of 16 Hyatt properties in the United States.
“I think we were one of the pieces of the comprehensive effort that has led to this whole tentative agreement,” Loeppke said. “Anytime dedicated clergy and lay people get together to really focus in a concerted way … good things have the opportunity to happen.”
Because Hyatt’s headquarters is in Chicago, having the Northern Illinois Conference honor the boycott made it that much more significant, according to Hyman.
“Methodists also played a role in trying to reach out to other organizations for them to honor the boycott,” Hyman said. When religious scholars meeting in Chicago last fall moved the headquarters hotel further from the convention center, United Methodists helped organize a Sabbath walk to accompany Orthodox Jews so that everyone would be walking together.
Prayed and prayed
Other actions included picketing and prayer, including a “flash prayer” event in the Hyatt Regency lobby. “We just really prayed and prayed, with complete earnestness, really valuing the collective prayer in the public square,” Hawking said. “Stating that God’s presence was there was very powerful for management to hear and the workers to hear as well.”
When religious delegations went to see Hyatt management, the workers often sent “thank you” messages as they waited, said the Rev. Betty Jo (B.J.) Birkhahn-Rommelfanger, pastor of Incarnation United Methodist Church in Arlington Heights, Ill.
“Seeing that actually the church would be a presence for justice for them and come into their struggle meant so much to the people that I talked with,” Birkhahn-Rommelfanger said.
Hawking and Birkhahn-Rommelfanger were among those able to get passes “to go to back of house” at the Hyatt hotel to interview workers during their lunch hour. Jewish groups led the effort to publish a clergy report, “Open the Gates of Justice,” on working conditions at Hyatt hotels.
Hawking remembers talking with one of the employees, who is a pastry chef and single mom. “She literally stood for 8 to 10 hours every day over her work table,” Hawking said. “It was very powerful to be in the back of the house like that and to see a glimpse of what their lives were like.”
Support and solidarity in California
As in Chicago, United Methodists in the denomination’s California-Nevada Conference have focused on support and solidarity for Hyatt workers, according to Alvaran. A member of the Philippines Central Conference, he has helped organize interfaith support for workers in northern California since 2007.
In San Francisco, Alvaran said the union allowed them to bring clergy to organizing meetings “to provide that ministry of presence and assurance that all will be well, you don’t have to fear.”
Alvaran believes the new tentative contract is a huge accomplishment, particularly in terms of a neutrality agreement that provides a hands-off approach as workers decide how they want to organize. But, it doesn’t apply to every hotel in the area, such as the Hyatt Fisherman’s Wharf, which is no longer owned by the Hyatt Corp. California-Nevada approved a resolution in 2009 endorsing a worker-led boycott of the Hyatt Fisherman’s Wharf.
Before the California-Nevada annual conference meeting in June at the Sacramento Hyatt, Bishop Warner Brown Jr., discussed the denomination’s position on labor issues with both union leaders and management.
“We took seriously our responsibility to respect our relationships with our neighbors,” Brown said. “We met with representatives of the labor movement who have concerns about working conditions for hotel workers, and we met with the general manager and the human resources manager of the Hyatt property.”
Several factors influenced the conference’s decision to have its 2014 annual session at a unionized hotel, the Hyatt Burlingame. Brown — whose parents, now retired, were both union members — was particularly pleased the contract with that hotel includes protective language that allows cancellation without penalty in the event of a labor dispute. He urged other annual conferences to do the same.
Including what is known as a force majeure clause in their hotel contracts, allowing them to move to another hotel if a boycott or worker action occurs, is the best way for church groups to help hotel workers, Hyman said, “because of the enormous consumer power that they wield.”
Alvaran said that conferences could check the union’s website to see if hotels in a particular city are under a worker boycott.