Organize! Chicago hotel housekeepers show how it’s done

BY:Lisa Bergmann| March 5, 2020
Organize! Chicago hotel housekeepers show how it’s done


Lisa Bergmann, a hotel union organizer, gave the following remarks at the 2020 celebration of African History Month in New York City. See video of the celebration here.

I’ve been a proud member of the Communist Party since 2005, and am currently a member of the Winchester-Newhall Club in New Haven, Connecticut. I was also a union organizer with the hotel and restaurant workers union for six years.

I feel very humbled that Jarvis Tyner and the New York Communist Party invited me to speak today amidst such a powerful group of women leaders in our people’s movement such as Bianca Cunningham, Reverend Annie Allen, and Mrs. Gwen Carr [Eric Garner’s mother]. Thank you very much for having me here. Mrs. Carr, I am sincerely sorry for your loss. We stand together with you in solidarity for justice and honor your courage. We hope you find yet another family of support here with the Communist Party community. Eric Garner, Presente! When we say “Presente,” it means that person may no longer be with us in the physical realm, but is present here with us today. Eric Garner, Presente!

I was asked to speak today about my experience organizing in the labor movement, in particular in relation to immigrant rights. Angela Davis has been saying for a number of years that the immigrant rights struggle is the civil rights struggle of today. The xenophobic strategy that is targeting immigrants is the same strategy that designed Jim Crow in the South, that designed the racist prison system of today, and that was used in Nazi Germany and Eastern Europe to eliminate my Jewish ancestors. The strategy is to create a group of second-class citizens who do not have access to employment, housing, health care, or self-determination. Once that second class is created, three things are easy for capitalists: forcing people to work for practically nothing, deflecting blame for society’s problems, and sponsoring state violence to keep people in fear.

The utter brutality that is being sponsored by the Trump administration to terrorize our immigrant communities is one of the main places where the right wing is testing exactly how far “back” they can push us. Lawyers from the Trump administration actually lobbied a San Francisco court to abandon the 1997 Flores Agreement, which requires basic sanitary conditions for immigrant children in ICE custody and limits the amount of time that children can be held in detention. So Trump literally sent lawyers to court to say, “These kids shouldn’t have toilet paper. They shouldn’t have toothbrushes. They shouldn’t have blankets. They shouldn’t have mats. They should sleep on concrete floors. And we should be able to keep them in these conditions indefinitely.” And Melania wore a coat that says “I don’t care” in huge letters when she went to visit the concentration camps where these children are being held and dying. The same way that the ultra right is testing how many black and brown family members we will allow to perish at the hands of law enforcement, they are testing us to see how many children and adults can die in ICE custody before our movement can stop this horror.

Somebody say “organize!” Organize!

Historically, the labor movement has made some mistakes by limiting involvement of immigrant workers, similar to the way that many unions did not allow Black workers to join, which forced divisions in workforces that were critical to the unity of the working class in this country. However, similar to the Black trade unionists that paved the way before them, once immigrant workers join a union fight, they are some of the most militant warriors. Many have experience fighting for the union in their own countries, or they have already overcome so many fears in immigrating to the U.S. that standing up to the boss is a natural next step. I met many workers who had escaped brutal violence in their home countries or in their domestic relationships. One housekeeper, Rani, from the Sheraton hotel in Vancouver, told me she had left everything she knew in East India with literally the shirt on her back, after her husband held a bag of frozen chopped beef in her face and told her she would be in the same Ziploc bag if she kept asking him to stop beating her. She became the top leader for the union in her hotel.

When I was organizing workers in Chicago, I was assigned to the Hyatt Regency hotel, which is a huge hotel run by 800 workers. One of the most powerful departments in any hotel organizing drive is housekeeping. Why? Number one: they are the biggest department and number two:  if housekeepers stop working, the hotel’s business instantly comes to a halt. Housekeeping is also one of the hardest jobs in any industry (they have more injuries than coal miners), and the workforce is majority female. In the Hyatt Regency Chicago there are 200 housekeepers. At the time I was there, one-third were African American, one-third were Mexican-American, and another third were Chinese-American. The African American workers mostly had the highest seniority, and through the union had fought for many years to win a cleaning quota of no more than 16 rooms per day. Many of the Mexican women were also experienced with the union and knew their rights. The Chinese group included the most recent immigrants to Chicago and had less experience with the union. So the boss began to divide the department, by paying the Chinese women to clean extra rooms above the cleaning quota, $5 per room. Naturally, the first reaction of the African American and Mexican workers was anger toward the Chinese women for accepting the boss’s bait and violating the quota that they had fought so hard to maintain. However, what did we do? Somebody say “organize!” The Mexican and African American union committee leaders met one-on-one with the women who had the most influence in the Chinese group. They asked them to join the union organizing committee and explained we could win a lower room quota with an hourly raise for everyone if we stayed together. Once the leaders in the Chinese group joined the committee, the department crushed the boss. The Hyatt housekeeping department brought all 200 housekeepers to the Hyatt headquarters in Chicago and marched down Michigan Avenue demanding a city-wide “room drop,” and a $2/hour raise, which they won. Somebody say “organize!” Organize!

Another way that employers try to intimidate immigrant workers is by using “no match” letters to fire them. A no match letter is a letter that the federal government sends to employers to notify them that an employee’s social security number does not “match” their name. The law requires the employer to notify the worker only that they have received such a letter. The law does not require the employer to take any kind of action against the worker. I was hoping that my dear friend and comrade, Fatima Rojas, might have joined us today, who is a fierce front-line organizer for immigrant and worker rights in Connecticut. Fatima is a proud mom with many movement commitments, and so couldn’t be with us today. Fatima organized housekeepers at the Omni hotel in New Haven to fight back when the boss used no match letters to scare them. When Fatima began organizing in the hotel, the company had fired five housekeepers due to no match letters. Shortly afterward, a housekeeper for whom a no match letter had been received disappeared from the job, as she was too afraid to come to work. Despite increased fear among the workers after this happened, Fatima met one-on-one with them and filed a class-action grievance against the company. Through the grievance process and union negotiations, Fatima and the Omni housekeepers won an “Immigration and Human Rights” clause in their union contract.  The language currently reads: “The employer agrees it will not take any adverse action against any employee listed on [a no match] notice, including firing, laying off, suspending, retaliating, or discriminating against any such employee, solely as a result of such no match letter.”

In the same immigration and human rights clause, there is language protecting workers from retaliation if they have faced incarceration, and language allowing workers time off during their work shift on Election Day to get to the polls to vote!

“Immigration and Human Rights” clauses have now become a standard in hotel and food service contracts, thanks to Fatima’s work and that of other courageous organizers like her on the front lines.

My parting hope today is for us to go find the people who have not yet been invited to join our justice movement, and ask them to join. They may be our friends and neighbors, whom we have been too shy to invite to the rally. Many of our people will be knocking on doors to beat Trump this November, waiting for you to be the one who first got them involved in the movement. Let’s find out what is stopping us from having the hard conversations, and let’s have them. Once we do, I know we will find our next Rani’s, our next Fannie Lou Hamers, our next Jarvis Tyners, our next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s, our next you! Somebody say “organize!” Organize!

Image: Charles Edward Miller, Creative Commons (BY-SA 2.o).




    Lisa Bergmann works as an organizer for the Young Communist League USA.

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