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On 8 March, hotel workers in California organized in support of the Reyes sisters, two Hyatt employees who contend they were the victims of a retaliatory firing after refusing to tolerate sexual harassment. Marches in San Francisco and Santa Clara raised awareness about the Reyes sisters’ situation, and injustices in the hotel industry in general as well.
Eleven days later, a worker heavily involved in labor organizing who backed the Reyes sisters was mysteriously suspended from her position at the Andaz Hotel in West Hollywood, a Hyatt property. It’s hard to believe that this is a coincidence, and harder still to believe that Hyatt would engage in this kind of activity when it’s already in the news for unionbusting and worker abuse.
Housekeeping staff do some of the most backbreaking work in the industry. Cleaning rooms requires serious manual labor and long hours. Many are unable to take their mandated breaks during the working day because they have to turn over rooms as quickly as possible, and chronic pain from back, shoulder and hip injuries is endemic among hotel workers. Hyatt has one of the worst histories in terms of labor violations, and worker Morena Hernandez wasn’t afraid to speak out about it.
In 2009, she participated in a rally on the Sunset Strip challenging pay cuts as union contracts were set to expire. She pointed out that workers gave the hotel chain everything, and it was rewarding them with proposals to slash pay and benefits; hotel management, of course, pleaded the recession as an excuse. The same recession that’s hitting workers hard, making it more difficult for them to meet the needs of their families.
Last year, she was front and center in a discussion about OSHA violations at the Andaz Hotel, saying that her time there had caused severe injuries and chronic pain -- and that the simple measures OSHA recommended for implementation should be put in place to protect the health and safety of housekeeping staff. Her injuries incurred in over 14 years of housekeeping have caused permanent impairments and have forced her to make lifestyle changes; she can’t throw balls with her nephews anymore, for example.
These are just two examples of her active labor organizing and advocacy. Hernandez has continued working at the Andaz while also trying to improve conditions for herself and other workers. Like the vast majority of housekeeping staff, she’s a woman of color. She’s one of the silent figures who flits through the halls of hotels with a housekeeping cart to make rooms clean and beautiful, cleaning up everything from vomit-splashed bathrooms to rooms mounded high in garbage and filth.
Every time I stay in a hotel, I think of the housekeeping staff, and the amount of work that goes into my immaculate room, each item in the bathroom laid out just so, towels folded in regulation shapes, bed turned down. Women like Morena make the wheels of commerce turn and get little credit for it. Like the Reyes sisters, all she’s asking for is a little dignity and safety, and like them, it seems likely she was punished for speaking out.
The hotel, naturally, claims that Morena wasn’t meeting their “standard of work performance.” That’s a pretty sketchy thing to say about a housekeeper who was just photographed and prominently featured at an International Women’s Day protest asking for better conditions for housekeepers, especially when she has a history of being involved in labor organizing. Especially since her version of the story sounds like she was doing precisely what she's supposed to do: making sure that rooms are perfect for guests.
Originally established as International Working Women’s Day, the holiday was historically a rallying point for garment workers, and later other women working in various trades who wanted better, safer working conditions. Over the years the original message has shifted, but the underlying core of dignity and equality for women is still present, and that’s what Hernandez was asking for when she participated in the protest.
Like the Reyes sisters, she reiterates that she intends to continue speaking out about Hyatt’s abuses, and that she won’t shut up in the face of intimidation. She’s determined to make sure that people know what they’re buying with a Hyatt reservation, and to point people at the kinds of improvements needed to make working conditions safe for hotel workers. She's a reminder that labor rights are a critical women's issue, and that acting in solidarity with working women is very important.
Hyatt has been engaging in unionbashing and smearing for years, and that’s the case here, too; they’re trying to claim that UNITE HERE is using cases like this one to promote itself with the use of falsehoods and half-truths in the interest of “growing.” It’s true that unions like to grow, but not for the purpose of taking down potential employers of union workers. Just the contrary: They want to strengthen the relationship between employers and their workers, to make conditions safe and productive, to ensure that workers are protected through negotiated contracts that make sure everyone’s needs and interests are met.
As of today, Hernandez has been suspended, but not yet fired. If you think her case is fishy, drop the folks at the West Hollywood Andaz a line to tell them so. The Reyes sisters, meanwhile, are still waiting for justice in their case.