By LUPE AGRADO
This talk was originally given on a panel of hotel workers during the 2019 “The Solution is Socialism” conference in Connecticut.
I’ve worked at the Hilton in Stamford as a banquet server for 20 years. Now, after a year-long battle to win our first contract, we are waging a struggle against the managers to make sure they follow the contract. I’m also a shop steward and a rank-and-file member of Local 217’s Stamford organizing committee.
I want to talk to you today about the important role women play in our unions. I know hotels. I’ve experienced a lot in 20 years. Women face very visible and clear types of discrimination and harassment working in the hotels. Most people are probably familiar with how common sexual harassment is. It’s everywhere. In Chicago our union is dealing with this with a campaign called “Hands off, Pants on!”
In a survey done by the union in Chicago they found that:
- “49% of housekeepers surveyed have had guest(s) expose themselves, flash them, or answer the door naked.”
- “65%of casino cocktail servers surveyed have had a guest grope, pinch or grab them or try to touch them in an unwelcome way.”
I’m sure if a survey were done at our hotels in Stamford, you’d see similar results.
This type of sexual harassment is reinforced in less obvious ways especially in the non-union hotels. First, women and mostly women from immigrant communities get the most difficult and worst paying jobs. Second, they are often forced to wear uniforms like a skirt. Have you ever tried to clean a room in a skirt? It’s very uncomfortable. Why are they reinforcing these crazy gender roles by making women wear stereotypical uniforms to clean? It is by far a less practical outfit for a physical job.
Third, the very vocabulary used to define their jobs, the term “housekeeper” brings to mind generations of women forced to stay in the home, working for free, cleaning, cooking, raising children, and taking care of elderly family members.
I think of the single moms, like I was, raising a child, working in the hotels, most working more than one job. I have a coworker, Rosemene, who before the union was working three jobs and taking care of all types of family issues.
The vocabulary the bosses use, “housekeeper,” puts women in a place psychologically where they automatically lower their expectations of what their worth is.
The reality is that men get higher paying jobs everywhere. We know there’s a gap in the pay received between men and women. When you look at the hotels you see a majority of men are the banquet servers, the cooks, and the engineers. These are all higher paying jobs, or in the case of banquet servers, well-tipped positions. In my department, five out of 13 banquet servers are women. Zero women are engineers. Five out of 16 women work in the kitchen. The other hotels are similar. Meanwhile, in housekeeping there are maybe three or four men out of 44 housekeepers.
How low is the pay? Earlier, I mentioned my coworker Rosemene who after a 40-hour work week frequently brought home paychecks of $17, and sometimes, even paychecks where they owed the company money because wages were so low and health care costs were so high.
This was one of the big reasons we fought hard for our union. We made a lot of sacrifices. My coworker Ines, a leader in the housekeeping department, often had to take the train to meetings, sacrificing time with her family so that she could both learn and have a say in how in how the fight was conducted.
The leaders, the organizing committee took on a multi-billion-dollar corporation and won a union. We won our union vote 110 to 5. We mopped the floor with the company. The leaders who spoke truth to power and fought for the right of their voice to be heard were mostly women, Haitian women and Latinas, who broke down language barriers and racial barriers to unite and win a better future.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget what we won. Our coworkers can fall back into old ways of thinking. They start thinking about themselves instead of what’s in our collective best interest. Every day is a struggle to overcome that. I want to stress that all is not bread and roses. Life for us is still difficult. We are still fighting every day to overcome all of differences like race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation that capitalist society exploits.
What do women need? Women need to be written back in to the history books. In every place we work, we need to join unions. In places where we already have unions we need to defend our unions. We need serious increases in the minimum wage that allow us to live dignified lives. In Stamford, since the Hilton victory and following the union victory at the Sheraton hotel, nearly all workers in major Stamford hotels have seen wage increases.
Women need to be at the center of the union struggle. Why? Because the union gives women a voice. When we form our unions we are no longer looked at as lesser people, but as equals. And if a man or a manager dare look at us any other way than with respect, they better watch out because we have a whole bunch of sisters behind us that will show them what we’re worth.
One thing that I think we as women and unionists should fight for is 24-hour child care on demand. We love our children, and we raise the next generation of workers that the boss is going to exploit for big profits. We deserve to be compensated and cared for. We deserve to work and be productive members of society. We deserve a day or a night off to have time for ourselves. We deserve to be able to learn and pursue higher education. Under the capitalist system we are prevented from reaching our full potential because the majority of child care responsibilities fall on the mother.
I was recently in Cuba with my partner and it happened to be March 8 International Women’s Day. After a long and emotional day of visiting Che’s memorial, we were stunned to see how all the programming on TV was oriented to the achievements of women in science, art, and literature. The billboards had messages that said men who didn’t respect women were less evolved. We’d never seen anything like it!
On the TV channels speeches were being given in the Cuban parliament about the central role of women in the Cuban Revolution. In the Museum of the Revolution you could see the pictures of Haydee Santamaria and Celia Sanchez climbing in the Sierra Maestra alongside Fidel. Women in the revolution just like women in our union played a central role in transforming their communities.
Cuba is not a perfect place. But it does provide an example of how it is possible to live in a world that prioritizes the needs and interests of working women and their families before the profits of big corporations.