If you haven’t read a lot of labor history or lived through the golden age of American trade unionism in the postwar boom, you will find the story of New York’s Local 6 almost impossible to believe. The local is the heart of New York’s Hotel Trades Council, which represents nearly all workers at Manhattan’s major hotels, some 40,000 in all.
This union has something that has vanished in most industries—serious worker power.
It has used this power to negotiate astonishing benefits and protections. For instance, room cleaners in New York hotels earn upward of $50,000 a year. Union members range from restaurant staff such as line cooks, dishwashers, bartenders, waters, and bussers, and hotel workers including desk clerks, bellmen, and “back of the house” staff such as laundry workers and cleaners.
The union bargains for very long-term contracts, which protect workers from having to negotiate concessions if a contract happens to come up during an economic downturn. The current contract expires in 2026. With tourism and business travel to New York on indefinite hold, some 90 percent of the union’s members are on layoff.
“Because our contract is long term, it is likely to outlive the virus,” says union president Rich Maroko. “There is no other industry that I am aware of with such a long-term contract.”
In city politics, Local 6, a relatively small union, is famous for punching above its weight.
The union also has what is probably America’s best worker health plan. It does not use commercial insurance, but runs state-of-the-art clinics located in four of New York’s boroughs, with salaried medical staff.
“One reason we’re able to negotiate such long-term contracts is our unique health care system,” says Maroko. “Because of that model, we’re able to predict and control costs. In the private insurance market, you can’t dictate cost increases and therefore you can’t project very far into the future. So even in most other union contracts, the parties will only will go out two or three years.”
In the pandemic, tens of millions of workers have lost their health coverage. But thanks to the hotel union’s power, its members have kept their full health coverage since massive layoffs began in March, and coverage will continue at least through September. The cost to the hotel industry, which is largely shut down and losing money, is upward of $50 million a month.
Because of the very strong contract protections and the worker power that backs them up, union members on layoff also have extensive call-back rights that simply don’t exist in non-union workplaces. “Non-union employers have no obligation to recall workers, nor do they have any obligation to offer recalled workers the wages, benefits, or working conditions they enjoyed prior to being laid off,” says Maroko. “A non-union employer could lower wages, eliminate benefits, and increase workload, and there is little the workers can do.”
For 40 years, hard times have revealed the weakness of unions, as labor leaders have had to negotiate givebacks rather than raises. But in the case of Local 6, hard times reveal the union’s strength. The master contract includes safety protocols to protect workers against COVID that exceed those of most organizations, like 20 days sick leave for workers with COVID, and that's on top of 45 days of other time off guaranteed in the contract.
With a heavily immigrant membership, the union organizes in 67 languages. Its rank and file is also very active in New York’s electoral politics, which creates alliances with local government in a city whose elected leaders are relatively pro-union to begin with. This comes in very handy when disputes with management get nasty, since nothing in New York can get built without a lot of permits, zoning approvals, and the like.
Virtually all bosses would prefer to operate without the inconvenience and expense of sharing power and money with their workers.
In city politics, Local 6, a relatively small union, is famous for punching above its weight. In the 2017 City Council election, all 26 of the City Council candidates the union endorsed were victorious. The union ran the largest independent-expenditure campaign of the city election cycle, focusing on nine closely contested races. Rank-and-file volunteers were far more important than money.
Notably, the New York hotel union has thrived during a period when all the larger forces were against it: the deliberate weakening of the Wagner Act protections, corporate America redoubling its anti-union efforts; the rise of private equity owners (including in the hotel industry) determined to break unions; and the relentless casualization of work.
HOW DID LOCAL 6 get so powerful and what might the rest of the labor movement learn from it?
I had been hearing about Local 6 for a long time, and in 2011 I decided to check it out for myself. I spent several weeks reporting and writing a feature piece called “A More Perfect Union.” For interested readers, the full history of the union is in that article.
Here is the basic story. The union, now affiliated with UNITE HERE, was founded in 1938. Maroko, who became president in August, is only the union’s fourth president in more than 80 years. The local has a long and continuing tradition of militant organizing, a democratic structure, and an activist rank and file. Shop stewards, known as delegates, are directly elected by the membership at each hotel.
The uses of rank-and-file power are backed up by an extraordinary strategy of contractual jurisprudence. The prime architect is Maroko, 50, who served as general counsel and chief negotiator for 18 years before being elected union president in August. Maroko, the son of a Brazilian mother and a Polish father, succeeded the legendary Peter Ward, who served as union president since 1995. Ward was known for his shrewd and creative use of tactics, and insistence on rank-and-file engagement.
The union’s strategy has been to organize the New York hotel industry wall to wall. Its citywide master agreement with the industry includes the holy grail of the labor movement, card-check neutrality. If a hotel group has even one union contract in the city and decides to build, purchase, or manage another hotel, it is bound by a neutrality clause. That invariably means the new property is union from day one.
Each contract spells out rights and responsibilities and the grievances process in detail, and binding arbitration in cases of rare deadlocks. This is backed by the union’s sheer power to shut down a hotel. Not surprisingly, solidarity feeds on itself. Union members, who might otherwise be part of the large low-wage labor market or casual jobs and gigs in New York, are devoted to their union.
The master agreement also provides that all the terms of the union contract carry over if the hotel changes ownership. And it requires that all payroll and scheduling data must be shared with the union, in the form of an electronic database.
The process sounds bureaucratic, but in practice it is the opposite. Both labor and management share an interest in quick resolution of disputes. Because the union delegates and negotiators know the contract and its remedies so well, most disputes are settled ad hoc.
The union has also used its power to avoid the kind of outsourcing that has plagued the hospitality industry in non-union towns, where someone working at a brand-name hotel is actually working for a staffing agency. This enables the brand to disclaim responsibility for the lousy pay and working conditions.
A strong union actually helps management be more efficient because it precludes low-road strategies, such as putting all the pressure for adjustment on the workers. For instance, in non-union hotels, workers get little notice of when and whether they are supposed to come in, depending on fluctuations in the guest census. With a union contract, management is compelled to recognize that workers have lives.
The union creatively uses the solidarity and activism of its membership, in rare cases of open conflict with management, to embarrass the brand. One weapon of last resort is the “lobby meeting.” The entire membership shows up in the lobby. As I wrote in my feature piece, it is the union’s equivalent of the famous distress call of the circus, “Hey, Rube.”
In one famous incident, a maître d’ at the ultra-luxury St. Regis hotel had been sexually harassing staff. The hotel’s celebrity chef sided with the maître d’ and management backed the chef. The entire staff showed up in the lobby and demanded a public meeting with the general manager, scandalizing guests. Management quickly caved. The eventual settlement required the chef not only to fire the maître d’ but to read a statement of apology to the whole staff.
IN SOME RESPECTS, it may seem easy to organize New York hotels. After all, the city is a must-visit tourist and business destination. If workers are decently compensated, hotels can simply pass the cost along to guests. But think again.
In the early days of the union, hotel companies resisted unionization as much as any other industry, as they still do in other cities. The very strong hotel locals, notably in New York and Las Vegas, are still the exception. Virtually all bosses would prefer to operate without the inconvenience and expense of sharing power and money with their workers.
While New York’s hotel union benefits from a legacy of worker power, and works to keep renewing it, this will be harder in other industries. Yet there are valuable lessons to be learned. Organizing an industry wall to wall is one such lesson. Involve the public is another. Both were applied in the SEIU’s famed Justice for Janitors campaign. Fast-food organizers are also attempting to replicate this approach.
What will become of the industry and the union once the pandemic eases? Maroko is optimistic. The city is still a worldwide tourist destination. Zoom may crowd out some live business conferences, but people are already getting sick of Zoom and craving face-to-face contact, eventually without mask and over a good meal. “It will come back,” says Maroko. “People will always come to New York.”
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