The Members are the Union: The Metropolitan Hotel Workers Rank-and-File

The hotel industry is the largest employer of immigrants, women of colour and single parents. It is generally acknowledged that hotel workers, across the industry, face horrible working conditions. Long hours of work are matched with low pay and unsafe working conditions. Too often these conditions are also matched with an inactive and compliant union leadership that views these problems as “part of the business.” This has been the case for workers at Toronto’s Metropolitan Hotel, where conditions are so miserable that workers accurately refer to it as a “five star sweatshop.” Unfortunately, as is all too common, when the Met workers turned to their union, HERE Local 75, for support their concerns were ignored, minimized or dismissed.

Faced with an ongoing situation of brutally racist management, awful working conditions and a union that can only be described as servile, rank-and-file workers at the Metropolitan decided to get organized to take care of things themselves. Last year several workers came together to form the Metropolitan Hotel Workers Committee, a committee made up strictly of rank-and-file members, to share information and strategize effective actions and campaigns to improve working conditions and put an end to harsh management practices. Within months, more than one-quarter of the Metropolitan’s workers had joined the committee. This is a crucial struggle for rank-and-file workers, most of whom are immigrant women. Of the approximately 200 workers at the Met, more than two-thirds are women, most of Filipino, Chinese, South East and South Asian and West Indian backgrounds.

The quick growth of the Committee speaks both to the seriousness of the problems facing Met workers and the longstanding need for effective action to deal with the issues given the union’s unresponsiveness. Housekeeping workers have been made sick from the regular use of chemicals that are not even properly labeled. One estimate suggests that one in ten workers at the Met presently suffers from some type of workplace injury. One worker was forced by management to leave the Met after 14 years when she developed cancer. By law the workplace is required to have a joint health and safety committee, including Local 75 representation, but the union reps have had no contact with the workers, despite repeated requests, and have done nothing even to ensure proper labeling (let alone to support work refusals).

Shift hours are another serious problem as workers are forced to work as many as 16 hours without a break. When one banquet worker took a cookie that was going to be thrown out, after she had worked all day without a dinner break, she was disciplined for taking company property. Even when workers skip food breaks because of job demands the company still takes a half-hour deduction from their pay.

Racism is rampant among hotel management who regularly discipline workers for speaking languages other than English, even if it’s simply with fellow workers. One worker of Pakistani background was driven from his job for praying, in the staff room, as part of the racist backlash after September 11, 2001. Incredibly, Local 75 has offered as an excuse for its failure to file grievances the fact that the local’s staff do not speak the languages of the workers and cannot offer translations.

So, one might ask, where has the supposedly progressive union, HERE Local75, been through all of this? Unfortunately, but hardly surprisingly, they’ve decided to put most of their energies into fighting, not the boss, but the rank-and-file committee. As the Met Workers’ Committee noted in a letter to Local 75 president Paul Clifford, “there comes a point where ineffective union representation goes over to a regime of open collaboration with management.” Local 75 has long been complicit in management’s treatment of workers, with stewards refusing to file grievances on the advice of managers. Since the formation of the rank-and-file committee have even joined with management to target activists. One worker was berated by a steward in front of a Department Manager for associating with members of the Committee. This same worker was told that he and two other workers were being put on a “blacklist” for being seen talking with Committee members while away from the workplace. Recently the union rep and the Met’s manager jointly called a meeting with shop stewards to co-ordinate an attack on the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) which has supported the Committee’s efforts. Workers were then pressured in the presence of management, to sign a statement demanding that OCAP stay away from the hotel. Faced with inaction, obstruction and outright hostility, from Local 75 leadership, the Met Workers finally decided to take things into their own hands. A true rank-and-file movement has come together to take on the boss in a manner that is direct and effective. Despite the hostility of Local 75 leadership the Committee has already made some important gains. Grievances have been satisfactorily resolved and Committee members have done skill-sharing with each other to teach themselves how to take grievances forward. This is do-it-yourself solidarity unionism where members look after each other, share resources and determine their course of action collectively – a real model for anarchism at work. Within weeks of forming the MHWC, workers were able to have a particularly nasty manager removed. This after repeated requests to Local 75 to do something about this manager had left the situation unchanged. Due to the efforts of the Met Workers Committee a conference scheduled to bring 300 people to the Met was cancelled, a move that stunned management. Through a series of direct actions and rallies the Committee has confronted the hotel management directly with demands that management rehire, with compensation, all victimized workers who have been forced from their jobs and stop the practice of harassing and firing injured workers. The response of Local 75 leadership has been a textbook example of business unionism, shrouded in pleas that the workers stop interfering in the work of a progressive local. In addition Local 75 reps have taken the position, so typical of union leadership, that the rank-and-file committee is a divisive threat to the union itself. The president and staff, despite being aware that more than one-quarter of the Met workers had joined the Committee, has publicly dismissed the group as the work of a couple of malcontents.

Given the actions of leadership, a delegation of Committee members went directly to the HERE Local 75 offices to address the union’s lack of support for workers. MHWC members put forward their many concerns and asked what support the leadership was prepared to offer. The Committee was straightforward in their message: “Believing as we do that a union can only be as strong as its members; we have formed our Committee as a means of intervening to ensure that Henry Wu [Metropolitan owner] and his managers are challenged as they need to be. This must mean, however, that our Union’s staff and elected representatives put into effect a number of changes in their dealing with our employer.” The Local 75 staff and reps made it clear, in arrogant and patronizing terms, that they were not interested in any sort of serious battle with the employer. After the abuses suffered were laid out in detail the president responded “welcome to the hotel sector” (to members with a decade or more of experience) as if these are simply facts of life that workers should put up with as a condition of employment. The leadership even suggested that the workers wait until 2007 when everything would get better after the HERE merger with UNITE.

In a letter delivered to HERE Local 75 leadership, the Met Workers served notice that they would not put up with the rotten combination of brutal management and a compliant union. “A group of us who work at the hotel have decided to set up a workers' committee to deal with these problems. We intend to take action against unfair and harsh conduct by the employer AND to demand that our union start representing us properly. We are not anti- union but we do want a union that works for us and the only way we can win this is to make sure that the ordinary members take control of it as they have a right to do.” While the leadership bemoan the lack of translators, without explaining why a union would hire staff who don’t speak the same language as large proportions of the membership, the Met Workers Committee members have shared skills with each other to teach themselves how to pursue grievances and work refusals. While the union’s top-down authoritarian structure prevents it from drawing on the skills and talents, including multilingualism, of members, the Met workers have provided translations skills that have allowed OCAP to expand its own anti-poverty casework to people it otherwise could not have assisted.

All along the MHWC has maintained that they identify, not only as members of a particular union or as part of a specific workplace, but on a broad working class basis. Thus they have reached out to poor and unemployed workers in community groups like OCAP as well as making alliances with rank-and-file members of other unions, such as the Anti-Poverty Working Group of CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) 3903. With support from these groups the MHWC has organized several direct actions and rallies at the workplace. In addition the Committee has broadened its efforts to take the boss on in the community as well as the workplace. Met Workers have worked with the CUPE 3903 Anti-Poverty Working Group to press York University to remove the Met’s owner, Henry Wu, from the Board of the York Foundation. This class-based organizing is significant, not only in terms of bringing greater resources to bear on the situation, but also in helping to break down the sectoralism that often keeps working class folks divided by workplace, union or employment status.

As the Committee has grown and enjoyed some successes they have been approached by workers from other hotels to see about starting similar committees in more workplaces. These are crucial steps in building a vital network among rank-and-file activists geared towards autonomy and self-activity. Significantly the MHWC has focused its efforts on building an informed and active rank-and-file base rather than putting together a reform slate for infrequently held executive elections. These efforts will do more than any left-led reform movements, leadership slates or caucuses to establish the basis for a revitalized and militant workers’ movement.


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