Fired hotel workers find many still fired up for their cause
Mostly silent in City Council meetings since launching her write-in re-election campaign, councillor Marjorie Decker returned her passion and rhetoric to discussion Monday over 100 fired housekeepers, leading a unanimous vote to pressure and punish their ex-employer, the Hyatt Hotels Corp.
The resolution reaffirms a Sept. 21 vote for the Hyatt Regency Cambridge to rehire the workers; for city government and sympathetic residents to stop doing business with Hyatt properties; and for people to contribute money to the fired housekeepers via bringbackthehyatt100.org. A copy of the resolution is to be delivered to the Hyatt Regency Cambridge.
Council chambers were standing room only, including at least 20 people wearing red Unite Here union T-shirts signifying they were fired workers or their supporters. The audience burst into applause and smiles when the vote was taken.
Decker had an additional goal: Publicizing that the issue of the Hyatt 100 hasn’t been resolved.
“If Cambridge city councillors think this was resolved, probably most of the state thinks this was resolved,” Decker said. “My question is, why would Hyatt do this here, in one of the most progressive cities in the country? It’s a test. If Hyatt can fire 100 workers here and there are no consequences, then you can bet they’re gearing up to do this all around the country.”
That final goal was inspired in part by a request for clarification by Councillor Ken Reeves, who said he’d heard the fired workers were rehired.
In fact, according to Decker and the testimony of fired workers, the company offered them only a year of employment by a temp agency paying about half what the workers had been earning.
“Hyatt lied,” Decker said. “They were duplicitous.”
Many of the employees were at Hyatt for more than one or even two decades and earning $15 or $16 per hour. The temp agencies, although paid $12 per hour per employee, passed on only $8 per hour to their workers, she said.
Some 130 workers were fired Aug. 31 among the three Hyatt properties in Cambridge and Boston, sparking outrage and anti-Hyatt resolutions in those cities and at the State House. The furor died down somewhat Sept. 25, when Hyatt released a statement saying “Every housekeeping employee who wants a job will have one. That’s our promise,” and some media organizations reported the company had caved to public pressure.
But Decker and workers at the council meeting Monday explained the difference, including information Decker said was confirmed by the attorney general regarding workers being forced to buy lunches from their own temp agency — and being charged for the lunches even when they didn’t have time to eat.
In addition, fired workers spoke of an earlier lie. During the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting, one testified that when she was told she would be out of a job in two days and asked why, “They said the economy is bad. But every day the hotel is sold out, the hotel is full!”
Indeed, the Hyatt press release, quoting a general manager in Boston named Phil Stamm, assures readers “We are committed to supporting all of our associates, especially when they are negatively affected by business decisions made necessary by the most difficult economic environment in decades.”
But Joey Mokos, a Unite Here organizer, had figures on hand Monday to show Hyatt “used the economy as an excuse to stick it to the workers.”
Citing filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, company quarterly reports and other documents, Mokos noted that as of November, Hyatt had more than $1.3 billion in cash on hand, significantly more than competitors Marriott International ($125 million) and Starwood Hotels & Resorts ($79 million); that a November initial public offering of stock generated $1 billion for Hyatt and its majority owners, the Pritzker family; and that the local properties have little or no debt.
“Hyatt is not about to collapse,” Mokos said.
Cambridge’s resolution joins other efforts against Hyatt’s cuts, including by the Boston Workmen’s Circle and other Jewish interests and by organized labor beyond Unite Here. Three union representatives spoke separately Monday, with one saying “It’s an abomination what Hyatt did, and I hope Cambridge has the steel to fix the problem.”
Decker agreed it was a council issue, noting what was being addressed was a Cambridge business hurting Cambridge residents, and congratulated the fired workers for “not just walking away from the issue. You decided to take a stand.”
“No doubt about it,” she said, “you are a test case.”
The council also:
Voted unanimously to set up a fund to pay retiree costs not already covered by city pensions with an initial, if nominal, transfer of $2 million from the city’s Health Insurance Claims Trust Fund. The name of the new fund, which is estimated to have a total need of $599 million, is the Other Post Employment Liability Trust Fund, although most people add the word “benefits” and refer to such vehicles as OPEB. Most of the expenses associated with such funds — which are being debated and created across the country — are retiree health costs.
Charles Marquardt made the fund an issue during an unsuccessful run for city council, and he was on hand Monday to ask the council not to adopt the $2 million transfer suggested by City Manager Robert W. Healy.
“I urge you to hold off on that until we do what Cambridge does so very well — study it,” he said during public comment. “There has been no input from experts, the public or really from yourselves … there are things that need to be discussed.”
Healy’s comments served to brush off Marquardt’s concerns about how health care reform would affect the fund, saying the effect “won’t be significant,” and to downplay even the significance of the vote. “This is a show of the recognition of the issue,” he said. “It’s not imperative, but I believe it is appropriate.”
Discussed the aborted attempt to provide free citywide wireless Internet. Healy said most people know how to get free WiFi when they need it and that the city would probably be grateful it didn’t pour money into the project, as did Philadelphia and San Francisco. (Councillor Craig Kelley said he was already grateful.) But, mindful of residents in Cambridge public housing without wireless access, Reeves exhorted Healy “to even incrementally add more … I don’t want there to be two classes of people.”
Discussed the proposed Stretch Code to make city renovations, additions and new construction more energy efficient by providing rules to follow during design and construction. Audience members and councillors had concerns and questions about how the code would be applied starting July 1. City officials agreed there was “a lot of confusion” but that concerns were overblown and adoption would be gentler and less radical than many feared.