Militant Journalism

Hotel workers in British Columbia win historic fight for jobs

On May 11, workers at the Hilton Vancouver Metrotown, in Vancouver British Columbia, represented by Unite Here Local 40, prevailed against their employer in ending a 391-day lockout and securing a new collective bargaining agreement. This protracted labor dispute began during the coronavirus pandemic, when 97 unionized workers were terminated with no rights to recall or reinstatement. When the workers insisted that those who were fired be brought back during the course of contract negotiations, the hotel responded on April 15, 2021 by locking out all employees, resulting in the longest lockout in BC history. 

Despite over a year of being barred by their employer from working at the hotel, the workers held together and refused to concede to the hotel’s aggressive tactics. In the final three-year agreement, which the workers recently ratified by a 98% yes-vote, they successfully secured full recall rights for the 97 terminated workers without loss of seniority or wages. Additionally, other major gains include wage increases, new protections for gratuities, stronger recall language, and the preservation of preexisting health and pension benefits. 

Furthermore, the contract stipulates that the hotel must offer room cleaning to guests on a daily basis. Many hotels, like the Starwood chain in 2008, have implemented anti-worker measures like the “Make a Green Choice” guest incentive, which rewards guests for declining housekeeping services. This ultimately allows hotels to schedule fewer housekeepers for the same amount of work, and makes cleaning rooms upon checkout much more arduous.

The key to the workers’ victory, explains Gemma Dela Torre – a Local 40 member and room attendant who has worked at Hilton Metrotown for seven years – was their solidarity, determination, and unity: “They fired 97 people and then they lock us out, the rest. Me, I’m not fired. But I still thought I’d be the next to be fired. So, we all were outside in front of the hotel on the picket line.”

“No matter what, we stick together and stand up. And then, you know, never give up. That’s our union.” Further reflecting on the struggle, Dela Torre proudly remarked, “More than a year – 13 months fighting … to end this. And to get a fair contract. We won.” 

Women workers lead the fight

Hotel companies laid off over 50,000 hotel workers in BC when the pandemic hit in 2020. Sixty percent of hotel workers are women, so the brunt of these layoffs fell to the very women workers who have always formed the backbone of BC’s hotel industry. Yet, rather than rehiring these workers as the industry recovered, the companies sought to exploit the pandemic crisis as an opportunity to lock in permanent cuts to the workforce and by imposing backbreaking workloads for those who remained. 

Dela Torre explained the situation before the lockout: “The hotels are trying to save money by eliminating daily room cleaning. But it’s just hard, as a housekeeper, when rooms are not cleaned every day. Very dirty, which means I have to rush to clean the dirty rooms, and it’s very hard to do that. I don’t want to injure myself. Fourteen rooms a day is very hard.” Without daily cleaning, each room can take up to two hours to clean. 

“Some of my coworkers,” Dela Torre added, “they worked there since day one, so 20 years they’re working there. And then now, just like that, fired.”

This callous disregard for the women who built BC’s hotel industry through years, and in some cases decades, of service, highlights the persistent inequality women workers face in the industry, and in general in a BC economy that prioritizes profits over people. 

In the face of these conditions, women workers across the hotel industry in BC, including Dela Torre, led the fight back for jobs, safe workloads, and fair treatment. In addition to their direct actions, the workers also launched a public campaign called Unequal Women: 19th Century Treatment in 21st Century British Columbia, which draws attention to the hotel industry’s refusal to rehire the women they laid off during the pandemic, and the Canadian government’s refusal to intervene to support them. 

A coordinated attack by companies on workers

The aggressive employer action taken by Hilton Metrotown follows in the footsteps of the 2004 hotel lockout in San Francisco. During negotiations for the union contract covering hotel workers across San Francisco, 1,400 workers at four hotels represented by Unite Here Local 2 initiated a two-week strike. Several days into the strike, those four hotels were joined by ten additional hotels in responding to the strike with an indefinite lockout of 2,900 additional workers. Multiple companies had entered into a mutual pact to take coordinated action and prevent union members from returning to work unless they accepted the concessions demanded by employers. Workers who had economically prepared for only a two week strike, in addition to workers who had not expected to be locked out at all, faced a choice between substantial economic hardship and sacrifice for an uncertain period of time or agreeing to the employers’ conditions. In the end, after 59 days, the workers prevailed and ended the lockout without having to cave in during negotiations. 

Despite the defeat for San Francisco’s hotel owners in attempting a lockout in 2004, the Hilton Metrotown gambled on the same tactic 17 years later in the hopes of isolating and demoralizing its employees at the height of a global pandemic. Indeed, two weeks after Hilton Metrotown locked out its workers, Hospitality Industrial Relations, an employer group which represents 32 hotels, motels, and liquor stores in BC, threatened a city-wide lockout of 1,200 workers.

Given the broader industry move to reduce housekeeping work, it is particularly remarkable that the Hilton Metrotown workers were able not only to beat the lockout but also emerge with new protections to guarantee daily provision of housekeeping services and thereby protect their work.

“This fight is for us, the workers against the company,” Dela Torre emphasized. “We never give up, because our jobs are very important to us.” 

Photo: Unite Here Local 40

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