‘We deserve more’: hotel workers vote to authorize strike in California | US unions

Hotel workers are threatening to strike in California over pay and conditions in what would be the largest ever strike by hotel workers.

In a strike authorization vote held on 8 June, workers voted 96% in favor of authorizing a strike, which could start as early as the Fourth of July weekend.

The decision impacts 15,000 hotel workers represented by Unite Here Local 11 in the Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles area is preparing to host two of the largest sporting events in the world back to back, the Fifa World Cup in 2026 and the summer Olympics in 2028 and workers are demanding improvements in their contract ahead of what is expected to be highly profitable and extremely busy period for the industry.

The workers at major US hotel employers, including Hyatt, Hilton, Highgate, Accor, IHG and Marriott, are pushing for a $10-an-hour wage increase, affordable family healthcare, retirement pensions and safe workloads and staffing levels as hotels throughout the industry have used the Covid-19 pandemic to cut staffing levels and increase workloads, such as eliminating daily guest room cleaning.

The union noted the hotel industry received billions of dollars in Covid relief funds through the payroll protection program but still cut jobs. Hotel occupancy in the LA area recovered to pre-pandemic levels by late 2021 and tourism to the area has nearly recovered to pre-pandemic levels of 2019, which was a record-setting year of revenue for the industry.

Workers are pushing for gains that reflect what they have been through during the pandemic, the current issues they are facing with staffing cuts, high inflation and soaring rent costs.

Lupe Pitones, who has worked at the front desk of the Westin Bonaventure hotel in Los Angeles for 17 years, is still recovering from the challenges and issues she faced during the Covid-19 pandemic, which included a long furlough from her job and issues with retaining and finding health insurance while awaiting and receiving a liver transplant.

She was furloughed shortly after the pandemic started in the US in March 2020 until she started getting called into work sporadically in early 2021. In January 2022, her doctor notified her she would require a liver transplant, but because she had been furloughed and was not getting enough hours at work to maintain eligibility for health insurance through her employer, she also had to worry about finding another health insurance while awaiting a transplant.

“It was overwhelming. So many things go through your mind, if I’m going to die, what if I don’t make it, my family, insurance,” said Pitones.

While on the transplant list, Pitones’ donor list scores weren’t high enough to receive a transplant in California and in October 2022 her doctors said she would have to relocate to Arizona to receive a transplant as soon as possible or she was at risk of dying. But by then she didn’t have insurance and was waiting on her application for Medicaid in California.

“My family got together and agreed to make the payments for insurance and we relocated to Arizona,” she said. “If I didn’t have insurance, I wouldn’t be here. I was dying and having to worry about insurance.”

“We have to fight for health insurance because it is crucial. Sometimes your life depends on having insurance for your loved ones and yourself and having it give peace of mind,” added Pitones. “For this contract, we want to emphasize that we deserve more because prices are higher and we’re not getting enough hours. We’re hard workers and when it’s time to fight, we’re going to fight.”

Other hotel workers in the area have criticized the high cost of rent in the Los Angeles area that has pushed out workers to have to live far away from their hotels of employment.

“I am forced to spend half my wages on transportation and risk my life on dangerous roads. I am voting yes to strike because my co-workers and I deserve a wage that allows us to live near where we work,” said Brenda Mendoza, a uniform attendant at the JW Marriot LA Live in a press release, who commutes two hours each way from her home in Apple Valley, California, to work in downtown Los Angeles every day.

Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11, said the union provided hotels with a proposal in April 2023, but only heard back from the hotels with a counter proposal recently, which he said didn’t include any economic responses.

“The workers are absolutely furious,” said Petersen. “When the contracts expire, we are prepared to call an industry-wide strike, which if we do it will be the largest strike as far as we can tell in the hotel industry in probably US history but definitely in the last 50 years.”

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