Here's my report from the Hyatt workers' negotiations. I represented the American Conference of Cantors. My report is cross-posted on the AFL-CIO blog:
At a time when collective bargaining is under threat, the workers of Hyatt hotels in Chicago invited clergy to observe their negotiations with management in February. I was honored to attend the negotiations as a local clergy community leader and was representing the American Conference of Cantors.
Being with the workers during negotiations was a remarkable experience. In the morning, before the negotiations began we had the opportunity of meeting with the 80-plus workers. I heard moving testimonies by union workers from Chicago along with nonunion workers from Indianapolis. They laid out their work-related struggles and spoke eloquently of the deep unfairness of their employment situations. One Chicago worker told of being required to work overtime over the Christian holidays while fellow workers were sent home with no work or pay. Neither of them had a good holiday.
At its nonunion hotels, such as the Indianapolis Hyatt Regency, many Hyatt employees and subcontracted employees start at the minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, and clean as many as 30 rooms a day; few, if any, receive health insurance. By contrast, union Hyatt employees at the Chicago Hyatt Regency start at $14.60 an hour with benefits and clean 16 room a day. In several cities, such as Indianapolis, workers have called on Hyatt to accept a fair process to enable them to choose whether or not to join a union. Hyatt has refused.
At Chicago union Hyatts, workers have been without a contract for 18 months. Hyatt is demanding unacceptable benefit cuts for new employees and contract language that does not adequately protect their jobs from outsourcing and overwork when others are laid off.
It was heartening to see union workers and nonunion workers agree to stand up for each other with the goal that they all may collectively bargain for fair wages, benefits and working conditions and command respect for their human dignity from their managers and employers.
After the worker meeting, the management negotiating team entered the room. Union workers gave testimony about how work conditions have deteriorated over time. I was moved to see a low-paid worker sit across the table from the team of executives and address them courteously, yet firmly, and as an equal. One worker berated the executives for describing the workplace as a "family." He spoke passionately about his own family. I found it powerful and refreshing to see him call out the manipulation of the word “family" by corporate executives.
Do you know how, sometimes, in a moment of heightened emotion, people who you never thought capable of eloquence, speak words of great beauty and power? When officiating at a funeral, I'm often moved by the words that mourners share in their eulogies. The rich storytelling by someone who never does public speaking and gets up to speak with deep love and beautiful, simple directness.
Listening to the workers’ testimonies, before and during the negotiations, I felt a similar sense of wonder. The workers that do the manual labor in our city’s hotels got up to speak their truth. They did so courageously—sometimes with trembling fear in their voices—and with great integrity.
It will take some time before a full agreement is reached. Hyatt hotel workers have called for a boycott of certain Hyatt hotels. I am proud to report that the American Conference of Cantors pledges in its conference business to honor the workers' boycott and will not patronize any of the boycotted hotels until a just resolution is reached.
About the American Conference of Cantors
Founded in 1953, the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) is the pre-eminent professional organization of Cantors in North America, currently representing more than 450 cantors in North America and around the world. As clergy committed to Judaism and Jewish music, the membership of the ACC serves the diverse needs of the Jewish people. As an affiliate of the Union for Reform Judaism, the ACC supports its members in their sacred calling as emissaries for Judaism and for Jewish music, providing a unique and dynamic vision of programs and initiatives that respond to the needs of the greater Reform community.
April 6, 2011