It’s October 20, 2018, and it’s louder than an orchestra or rock concert on the 2200 block of Broadway in downtown Oakland, California. Irma Perez is working her bullhorn like a trumpet virtuoso. She’s standing in the middle of hundreds of people who’ve made plastic buckets into drums, their hands holding perfect rhythm as they harmonize their chant: “Hey hey, ho ho—Mar-ri-ott has got to go!”
Perez has the kind of energy that can motivate everyone on the picket line for days on end, dancing as she’s chanting to remind the workers and their supporters that they are fighting for a better life, for the freedom from having to work two full-time jobs. Every picket sign has the strike slogan and the workers’ demand: “one job should be enough!”
Born and raised in Guanajuato, Mexico, Perez is a mother of three. Her daughter, Carolina, is thirty years old. Her second child, Abraham, is twenty-eight. David is the youngest; he’s twenty-six. But Perez was so youthful that you’d never guess that she’s fifty-two.
I sat down with her in a café a block away from the picket line at the Oakland Marriott. With a deep smile, she reached for her phone to show me pictures of her children and started talking about her four grandchildren. Two live in Mexico, and two live near her in the East Bay, in California.
“Near her” changed recently, because Perez—like so many other workers—lost the first house she owned during the housing crisis brought on by the unregulated financial industry in 2008. She was forced out of a nice neighborhood in Berkeley and now lives with her brother, sister-in-law, and their two kids near the towering Oakland Coliseum, where schools, access to public transit, and all available services drop precipitously in quality.
Perez’s day job is at the Marriott-owned Courtyard hotel in Oakland. She’s been working there for seventeen years. Because she’s such a natural leader among her peers, her union, UNITE HERE, the primary hotel and hospitality workers’ union in the United States, leveraged a contract provision known as union leave. This provision allows people like Perez to work with the union for a specified period, generally with the union reimbursing the employer. Workers can then stay on the company payroll—accruing seniority and hours toward their benefits (especially retirement)—while having a chance to develop their leadership capacity by doing hands-on full-time union activities.
Perez has been serving as the lead union spokesperson for a campaign that she and her coworkers launched to win safeguards from sexual harassment. The campaign she’s working on, a collaboration between UNITE HERE and a local community-based organization, the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), secured enough signatures to get a ballot initiative in Oakland. The initiative, known as Measure Z, is part of a broader campaign run by her national union, called Hands Off, Pants On, or HOPO.
“I think that we have to put a face on the abuse that we deal with,” Perez explains. “There is a lot of abuse of the women who clean hotel rooms. We want people to understand what is behind the scenes when they walk into their hotel room and they see it all clean, pretty, and perfumed. Behind that, there is something hidden, which is the sexual harassment of the workers who make the rooms so nice for the guests.”
The numbers are shocking: More than half the hotel employees in her city, and all cities surveyed, experience sexual harassment routinely. Long before the Harvey Weinstein scandal put the wind in the sails of the #MeToo movement, the hotel workers’ union was tackling sexual harassment in the workplace. In a twelve-page detailed report dated July 2016, titled simply “Hands Off Pants On, Sexual Harassment in Chicago’s Hospitality Industry,” UNITE HERE documented that 49 percent of housekeepers report having experienced guests exposing themselves, while 58 percent of hotel workers and 77 percent of casino workers report having been sexually harassed by a guest.
As a result, women hotel workers who were union members worked with their union to come up with solutions to the crisis of sexual harassment of hotel workers. Its biggest victory came in the nation’s third-largest city, Chicago, where the union in 2017 won a new citywide ordinance mandating that every city hotel provide hotel workers a GPS-connected emergency (or panic) button that they could wear on their uniforms.
By the time they began pushing for Measure Z to be placed on the 2018 ballot, Perez and her colleagues in Oakland wanted more than their mostly women colleagues had achieved in Chicago. They wanted the creation of a registry of hotel guests who sexually harass workers in order to ban offending customers from making reservations and thereby hopefully shaming those offenders by refusing them a room. Measure Z would also create a new city department with whom hotel employees can file complaints and from whom they can expect enforcement when hotel operators aren’t listening or following the law.
“The harassment is very common. You even start to see it as normal, because it’s happening all the time,” Perez says. “You’re always seeing men who are naked or masturbating when you come in to clean the rooms. It happens in hotels every single day. When we complain to management, they don’t do anything. The managers are men, and they usually just laugh. They’ll tell us, ‘Don’t worry about it, nothing will happen, go get one of your coworkers and have her come in to the room with you to finish cleaning.’ They always tell us that the guests come first.”
Workers get penalized by management for failing to meet their grueling per shift room cleaning quota. In nonunion hotels, these workers, mostly women of color, are expected to clean on average thirty rooms per shift; in a union hotel with a good contract, the maximum allowable is fifteen. The idea that one hotel worker who feels threatened by an aggressive guest is going to go find another coworker, and ask her to stop cleaning her room—and miss her quota—so she can chaperone is ludicrous.
Perez, when we talk, expresses pride that her union is leading a campaign that will help union and nonunion hotel workers alike. “Since I have a union and a contract, we have some standards already, and the boss has to respect them,” she says. “But there are lots of hotels that don’t have any standards. And the saddest part about this is that the bosses will make them go and punch out and then finish doing their work so that they don’t get paid.”
On the picket line, Perez is also fighting to save her high-quality, low-cost health insurance plan, for which the largest chain in the world and über-profitable Marriott hotel company wants to make the workers pay considerably more each month. To Perez, these two fights—against sexual harassment and for the right to good health care—are two sides of the same coin.
“This strike is important because, first of all, it is historic,” she says. “In the past, the company has negotiated with us in good faith. But this time, they refused to. So we have been forced to go on strike in what is Marriott’s first strike ever. We are very strong right now. At this hotel, only three union members crossed the picket line.”
On November 2, 2018, Perez and her colleagues won their fight against Marriott and ratified their new contract. Four days later, Perez won again when voters in Oakland overwhelmingly passed the union-backed hotel worker safety law, 76 percent yes to 23 percent no. Apparently, ordinary Americans are more sympathetic to mostly female housekeepers walking empty hotel hallways and entering hotel rooms alone than the mostly male hotel managers.
The Hands Off, Pants On campaign continues today, moving to new cities and new states. To date, Perez’s national union, UNITE HERE, has passed versions of these laws protecting workers in Chicago, Seattle, Oakland, and Long Beach, California.
There’s something fundamental to and instructive about stories like this, something bigger and more important than any one issue: In order to unionize and win big, workers need to build and rebuild deep solidarity.
This helps clarify the most important political lesson urgently needed today: There are only two sides, the owners and the rest of us. It’s no accident that the cities and counties with the strongest union presence have consistently voted in favor of progressive policies. This is the crucial reason the corporate right wing has been relentlessly attacking unions. A well-unionized worker is a woke worker, and woke workers can change the direction of this country.
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