Connecticut hotel workers fight corporate reopening

Local 217By ERNIE GOTTA

Hotel workers in Local 217 Unite Here led a car caravan to the state capitol on Tuesday, June 16. They filled Hartford with the sound of honking horns on their way to deliver Governor Ned Lamont a series of demands around the reopening of the economy. The action was organized in opposition to what they feel is a state reopening that only serves the interests of hotel owners.

Phase one of the governor’s reopening was marred by the opposition of small business owners. Barbershop and salon owners declared reopening was not safe for them or their customers. Lamont was forced to push back the reopening from May 20 to June 17. Hotel workers are hoping to have a similar effect on the governor. They delivered a petition signed by hundreds hotel workers across the state with demands that included mandated hazard pay, recognition that hotel employees are frontline workers, no challenges to unemployment applications, guaranteed health coverage during a layoff, keeping workers on the recall list for two years, and the endorsement of a relief fund for undocumented workers.

The union made it clear that these demands extended to all hotel workers and not just the five union shops currently organized by Local 217.

Lupe Agrado is furloughed. She’s a 21-year banquet server and shop steward at the Hilton in Stamford. She attended the rally and said, “I am worried that my job is never going to be the same, we will be exposed to the virus, and our lives are at risk. It messes with you mentally. I’m upset that the company is taking advantage of the pandemic. They treat us Latino and Black workers so low. It’s always Black and Latino workers risking their lives for the company’s benefit. The hotel owners are selfish and careless towards workers. We have no guarantees. We have no safety. We have to keep struggling.”

Leading up to the action, Local 217 released a powerful Op Ed in the New Haven Register that linked the hotel workers’ fight for a safe and just reopening with the ongoing Black Lives Matter struggle against police brutality. Sandra Walton, a Hartford Hilton room attendant, wrote, “The death and devastation wrought by COVID-19 in black and brown neighborhoods in the past three months has been punctuated by the racist murders of black individuals. It hurts more to know it did not have to be this way. It was not chance that allowed COVID-19 to disproportionately devastate black and brown communities. It was the inaction of people in power.

“Now, Gov. Lamont faces a choice. He goes on TV and says black lives matter. Workers of color are calling on him to protect us and protect our communities. Will he step up, the way we have when we’ve been called on as front-line workers? Or will he follow his friends in the hotel industry and hedge funds and allow a new wave of devastation of communities of color?”

It seems like Sandra’s message should have been an explicit part of the action on Tuesday. It’s a message that would have found its way to thousands of young students and workers who are marching every day against police brutality.

In general, the broader labor movement should be preparing today for the larger fight ahead. Union bus drivers, hotel workers, janitors, and health-care workers have all rallied separately in the past few weeks. A joint mass action of these unions would send shivers down the spine of any owner/operator trying to maximize their profits at the expense of worker health and safety. Actions connected with the fight against police brutality could usher in a new level of resistance to the ruling capitalist elite who use the police and austerity to oppress working people and minority communities.

Rank-and-file members of these unions can make this happen by pushing their coworkers to extend solidarity beyond the borders of the shop-floor fight, demanding joint actions with other unions fighting austerity, and demanding that union leadership mobilize in solidarity with the movement against police brutality.

Hotel workers expressed their fears and anger during Tuesday’s action. Ines, a seven-year Hilton room attendant and shop steward said, “If we get sick we’re going to make our families sick. And we can carry the virus without knowing and make our community sick. We demand protections.”

Similarly, Arturo Velasquez, a front-desk agent at the Stamford Sheraton, said, “We don’t know if the conditions are suitable or safe when we return back to work.”

Beyond the fear of what the future holds is an indomitable spirit characteristic of Local 217’s past cafeteria and hotel fights. Pumping up the crowd, Dieuseul Degraff, a cook and shop steward at the Hyatt Regency in Greenwich, declared, “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.”

This scrappy local could set an important example for the labor movement by leading a dynamic and visionary fight against the coming wave of austerity. Yesterday’s actions sent a clear message that Connecticut hotel workers are angry with their current situation and that they are going to fight both the governor and the hotel bosses to win their demands. 

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