The London hotel sector is known as the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ of union organising. There are no collective union agreements in any of the major chains. Can we break in? Ewa Jasiewicz, organiser with London’s biggest hotel union – the Unite Hotel Workers Branch – explains why and how we can win…
1. Hotels present a strategic terrain with a notorious history.
There are around 100,000 people working in the London hotel sector. Global chains including Hilton, Intercontinental Hotel Group, Carlson Rezidor and Melia have a combined estate of 136,000 rooms in the capital, averaging an occupancy rate of 84% and a return of £116.41 per room per night according to a recent PwC report.
Tourism in London is booming. Five-star hotels may look glamorous but they are modern day ‘sweat shops’ according to many hotel room attendants who form the backbone of any given hotel operation, turning over approximately 16 rooms per day on minimum wage. A hotel’s bread and butter profit is its rooms. If they aren’t clean and available for guests to check in to, the hotel comes to a halt. The strategic leverage that housekeepers have is massive, but housekeeping departments are regularly outsourced to agencies, and victimisation and fear are rife.
Equally important is the food and beverage department: the restaurants, bars, room service and banqueting suites. F&B can generate as much revenue for hotels as their housekeeping departments, yet waiting staff are often paid minimum wage and are heavily reliant on customer tips.
The British birthplace of the zero hours contract is the banqueting operation at the Grosvenor House Hotel, where in 1983 a group of unionised waiters lost their case for unfair dismissal against the employer – represented by Alexander Irvine QC, who later went on to become Lord Chancellor in Blair’s government. Case law was established which defined the waiters not as employees but casuals, and therefore unequal to their counterparts. This opened the floodgates contemporary casualisation. Long-serving Grosvenor House banqueting waiters working tables at high profile award ceremonies such the BAFTAs still don’t have permanent contracts.
As a consequence many in UK union movement have viewed hotel workers as impossible to organise. However, hotel workers in New York City have shown that it is possible – achieving over 80% union density, winning a starting wage of $24 (£16) per hour, and making the New York hotel sector one of the most highly organised and respected in the USA.
If they can make it there, then we can make it here…
2. HEAT: Hotel Employee Action Teams.
So how did hotel workers in New York do it? Their union, UNITE HERE, has a tried and tested model of combined community and workplace organising; one of rank and file leadership, ownership of campaigns and organisation, issue-based organising, confrontation of exploitation and the collectivisation of everything. Community activists and related organisations are also engaged in supportive roles.
The model is called HEAT (Hotel Employee Action Teams) and the Unite Hotel Workers Branch is adapting that model to the London hotel context. Manageable tasks are set for workers such as naming five others in their department who they trust in order to build up a political map of the workplace. This works out who is anti, who is influential, and who participates in collective actions. These tasks move up to having one to ones after work, slowly growing to small group meetings, organising collective grievances and building from workplace HEATs to company-wide HEATs.
The model is at variance with some of the organising approaches attempted in the UK in the past, but essentially these are workplace committees with some fire in them – organising within the same hotel brand across a whole city.
3. Individual support.
The Hotel Workers Branch runs an accessible advice surgery for workers every week at Unite HQ. Having a drop-in service which deals with individual problems means the rest of the time can be spent on building collective power.
Branch activists are trained to provide representation in the same way as shop stewards in a large, organised workplace would. Trust is boosted when workers see that their fellow workers from similar backgrounds are ready to support them, counteracting the common experience that many – especially migrant – workers have if they join a larger union; for example, the helpline being unhelpful because of language barriers, there being no shop stewards to go to in the workplace, and having to rely on full-time officers.
As a regular port of call the branch surgery also acts as a spark-point for identifying collective issues around which the HEAT process can emerge.
4. Protests and social media.
Animating and rendering visible invisible work and workers is necessary and possible through social media and physical demonstration. The irony, however, is that many hotel workers hide their identities online and don’t communicate over Facebook or Twitter for fear of management spies picking up on critical comments or online organising and then sacking them for ‘bringing the company into disrepute’.
Online spaces can be very insecure and hostile terrains for many workers who log-on and click-through but can’t openly ‘like’, ‘follow’ or ‘share’ what they really think. Despite this, the branch is using protests, Facebook and Twitter to confront and expose abuse, and to support other campaigns, unions and workers in their struggles. This includes bigging up a secret hotel worker’s blog which has helped animate the hidden realities of cleaning luxury hotel rooms for over 50k readers.
Also upcoming is a graphic novel written in Polish and English by former Hilton room attendant Barbara Pokryszka about her experiences of organising, which is set to be a tool for inspiring further organising.
5. New alliances, new possibilities.
Precarious work hasn’t always been seen as a ‘growth sector’ by big unions: membership has often been deemed too fluid and unsustainable, forcing branches in such sectors to be more self-sufficient and autonomous.
The Hotel Workers Branch calls the shots and leads from below. In its current form it’s been going for ten years and has grown from fewer than a 100 members in a handful of hotels to over 1000 members across 80 hotels. In such a hostile environment, this is a considerable achievement in itself.
The possibilities for working with other independent unions and supporting campaigns around housing, workfare, contract cleaning, fast food, and other areas of precarious life are developing. The branch knows that it needs to be part of a social movement. Its roots lie in the International Catering Workers Branch, established within the TGWU – a predecessor to Unite – by migrant workers in the early 1970s by pioneering a community-based organising approach which wasn’t wholly reliant on the traditional and often conservative methods of the British labour movement.
Recent examples of developing and adapting this approach include a joint action against McDonalds alongside the BFAWU (Bakers’ Union) Fast Food Rights campaign, joining the first United Voices of the World demonstration and backing their fight for Barbican Centre cleaners to win the living wage, standing with Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group against workfare and the victimisation of activist Tony Cox earlier this year, and supporting sacked Friends House cafe workers organised in the IWW.
The fight for hotel workers to win the living wage and union recognition is a winnable one. Hotel chains can afford it, our strategic power is massive and the confidence boost to our class will be considerable. Get involved!
Unite Hotel Workers Branch is planning a protest on 21 May – National Waiters Day. Find details for ‘WHY ARE WE WAITING?’ here. You can also email the author at email@example.com if you want to support or join the campaign.