In the days leading up to Labour Day, UNITE-HERE workers at Hyatt hotels in Toronto, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Honolulu organized one-day strikes to protest attacks that Hyatt has been carrying out against their workforce as of late. These attacks have included attempts to lock-in recession-related cutbacks in workers’ pay, even though company profits have been improving. In addition to these recent one-day strikes, Hyatt workers in cities across North America, including Boston, Vancouver, Sacramento, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Burlingame, and Santa Clara have organized protests against the hotel’s practices, with some of these protests including non-unionized workers. [One of these protests occurred in Vancouver in July; Matt Damario, a Fightback supporter in Vancouver, wrote a report from that rally here.]

In Toronto, UNITE-HERE local 75 was very successful in drawing attention to the hotel workers’ struggle by organizing a series of one-day strikes during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), considered to be the second most important film festival in the world. UNITE-HERE 75 has been fighting for better pay, more regular hours, and improved staffing at different hotels across the city. Aside from the strike at the Delta East hotel in Scarborough, seven other hotels that were picketed were involved in servicing TIFF’s needs.

The picket that attracted the most attention was the one organized on 10th September in front of the Fairmont Royal York. Actor Martin Sheen walked the picket line in support of the UNITE-HERE workers, wearing a UNITE-HERE placard and telling the Toronto Star that he’s been involved in labour struggles his entire adult life through his membership in the Screen Actors’ Guild. He said that he supports the struggle of the hotel workers because of this. Sheen even said that he had been talking to other celebrities in the hotel about organizing a potential boycott, saying that “there’s enough to make a difference and they are in full support,” though the union responded that this wouldn’t be necessary after thanking him for his gesture of solidarity.

While the support of Sheen and other Hollywood stars has been very important in garnering attention for the hotel workers’ struggle in the media and among the broader working class, more impressive (from an organizational standpoint) is the support they have been offered by the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television, and Radio Artists (ACTRA). ACTRA’s Toronto president, Heather Allin, stated, “The film industry relies on the hotel sector, and we’re not going to stand by and let these hotel workers be exploited.” In an official press release from UNITE-HERE, Allin also said, “If Toronto’s hotel workers cannot resolve relations with Hyatt to ensure workers are treated with respect, then my union will support Hyatt workers in this city and across the continent. They deserve to make a decent living from the work they do. Hyatt will face a determined boycott if they aren’t fair to the hard working people who make their hotels possible.” This kind of inter-union solidarity is as important as ever in the current period, when the bosses are trying to recover any profits they lost during their crisis by making cuts to the wages, benefits, and working conditions of workers, in addition to the social wage that comes in the form of public services and programs.

UNITE-HERE’s protests during TIFF are part of a longer series of strikes and protests that have made the hotel workers’ struggle one of the most visible and militant fight-backs against the bosses and their austerity agenda in both Toronto and the rest of North America. Three months ago, UNITE-HERE workers at the Novotel Hotel in Toronto’s Esplanade community went on strike two days before the G20 Summit, threatening to disrupt the stay of delegates and journalists in the city for the summit. The Novotel workers were protesting the owners’ failure in resuming bargaining. Although the workers returned to work for the beginning of the G20 summit, several hundred protestors made their way down to the Novotel on the evening of 25th June to support the hotel workers’ strike. There, they were cornered by police, arrested en masse, and detained at the temporary detention centre on Eastern Ave, with many being held for 24 hours or more. Fightback supporters, including the author of this article, were among those arrested and detained at this protest. The arrests that occurred at the Novotel on the Saturday evening have made the Novotel workers’ struggle well known in Toronto’s activist community. [More details about the arrests at Novotel can be found in our Summer 2010 issue, or here.]

In an effort to educate the public and initiate public discussion as to what happened on the Esplanade that night, the politics that lay behind it and how it relates to the day-to-day issues of local community members, the Esplanade Community Group organized a community town hall for the Wednesday immediately following the arrest and detention of some of the group’s members, with one of the speakers at the event being Rick Hockley, a shop steward for the Novotel hotel workers, who highlighted the struggle of the Novotel workers against the multinational Accor, who own Novotel, and how this relates to the broader struggle against the corporate agenda of cuts and austerity which was the major mobilizing issue for the majority of protestors at the G-20 Summit. Farshad Azadian, the speaker for the Esplanade Community Group, spoke about how the police attack against the protestors that occurred outside the Novotel that past Saturday could not be viewed as being disconnected from the police attacks against working class youth that happen in areas like the Esplanade everyday, and how the struggle of the hotel workers is one that the community as a whole must support. Back in July in Pittsburgh, 16 hotel workers were also attacked by the cops at another round of continent-wide hotel-sector actions that occurred that day, with these workers being arrested and given citations for obstructing traffic.

Following the conclusion of TIFF, UNITE-HERE organizers continued their visible campaign by organizing a large rally outside the Hilton hotel at Airport Rd. and Highway 427 on the afternoon of 17th September. There was a definite militant atmosphere, with many workers being very committed to the struggle and the tone of the chants on the line being very spirited. Carlos, a bargaining team member and Hilton worker, said, “I’ve been working here for 25 years, through two recessions, and there’s never been cuts to hours and staffing like this.” He explained how employee hours have been cut significantly in recent years, with employees having to work four-hour shifts, making it difficult for workers with families to afford the commute to work due to both the cost of commuting in the Greater Toronto Area and the cost of day-care. Carlos said the workers are “fighting to get eight hours a day.” They are also fighting for the company’s pension contributions to be increased from 55 cents an hour to at least 70 or 75 cents, and to get back the tips that used to be given to valets, which the company took away by charging $25 for a valet service that used to be free. In addition, Carlos noted the rising risk of workplace injury due to the company’s cuts in staffing. He believes this is especially dangerous for kitchen staff, who are at greater risk because of the materials they work with on a daily basis and the incredibly quick pace that is demanded of them. There has also been an increased risk for room attendants in particular, who are forced to clean rooms in the same amount of time with fewer staff.

The struggle of hotel sector workers in Toronto and across North America is an extremely important one for the labour movement as a whole, as this is currently one of the most militant, largest, and well-organized workers’ struggles happening in the United States and Canada. It is especially important in major cities where tourism and the hotel sector make up a large segment of the local economy, and where immigrants are particularly exploited in these industries. Workers across the continent must be in solidarity with the rising movement of hotel sector workers. These workers have made it clear that they are not willing to pay for the bosses’ crisis, or to keep paying for this crisis even when their bosses are beginning to recover profits that have been made off their backs.

The inter-union solidarity that has been seen on the UNITE-HERE lines is very important and, unfortunately, has been largely absent in many recent labour struggles. This is the first step of creating a genuine working-class fight-back, involving all workers in different sectors, against austerity and attacks by the bosses and their representatives in government. Furthermore, for workers to be ultimately successful, the struggle needs to be political, confronting the capitalist system. As long as capitalism exists, the rights and benefits that we have won will always be under threat by the bosses.