Sisters unite: Hyatt workers picket on International Women's Day

Martha Reyes, center, holds a banner surrounded by supporters, including Sup. John Avalos

About 80 protesters from a coalition of women workers yesterday staged a peaceful protest demanding that Hyatt reinstate two workers, Martha and Lorena Reyes, who were fired in October. 

The Reyes sisters claim they were fired after Martha tore down photoshopped images of the sisters’ heads tacked onto the cartoon images of women’s bodies in bikinis. These images were displayed in their workplace, the Hyatt Santa Clara, along with similar images of 70 fellow housekeepers. Hyatt has denied that tearing down the picture was the cause for the Reyes’ sisters’ termination. 

The protest, planned for International Women’s Day, was also meant to draw attention to what the demonstrators see as widespread disregard for the health and safety of women workers at Hyatt, as well as an ongoing contract dispute between UNITE HERE and Hyatt hotels.

“Underpaid, Underrated”

Demonstrators formed a picket line outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel at Union Square, chanting “women united will never be defeated.” The protest was accompanied by a creative project; a “clothesline” displaying more than 50 garments on which workers and allies had painted solidarity slogans. 

Women: 51 percent of world’s population, 70 percent of world’s poor, 66 percent of world’s workers, produce 50 percent of food, earn 10 percent of the income. Underpaid, underrated” read one puff-painted t-shirt.

“We are taking out the dirty laundry and talking about the injustices that Hyatt has done,” Martha Reyes told the Guardian.

Groups such as Mujeres Unidas y Activas, the Day Labor Program, the Chinese Progressive Association, and Gabriela USA (an coalition advocating for the rights of Filipino women workers), and the Progressive Jewish Alliance represented at the rally. 

Sup. John Avalos also marched in the picket line supporting the workers.

“I’m here to support the workers on International Women’s Day,” said Avalos. He decried the bikini pictures, which he said “create a hostile work environment,” and remarked that hostile work environments for women are all too common.

Inspired by the large turn-out, which Labor Council representative Conny Ford called “a multi-generational, multi-ethnic group of community and labor,” UNITE HERE Local 2 decided to enter the Grand Hyatt in an attempt to meet with General Manager David Nadelman. He conceded, and spoke with a delegation of about 30 women.

In a polite and non-confrontational meeting, Nadelman listened as each woman in the delegation took a minute to tell her story. 

Nadelman, who has managed 16 different Hyatt locations, gave a supportive response. 

“I appreciate and respect each and every one of you, and I want you to know your words will not go unheard. I will share the message, because that’s the least I can do,” Nadelman told the group.

Ford, who helped facilitate the meeting, responded that “the proof will be in the pudding.”

In a debrief about the meeting that closed the rally, the group expressed uncertainty that Nadelman’s promise to help would be fruitful. Some suggested ramping up tactics in the future, and potentially demanding that Nadelman call the Hyatt Santa Clara and ask them to reinstate the Reyes’s. 

The rally closed with chants of “we’ll be back.”

When asked to clarify his positions, Nadelman reiterated to the Guardian that “the message will be brought back to the folks I report to and beyond.”

He also expressed frustration with UNITE HERE Local 2, who was been locked in a contract battle with several Bay Area Hyatt locations since 2009.

Conflicted history

In an ongoing contract negotiation, the Hyatt wants to remove a part of the hotel workers’ contract that allows workers to vote on whether or not new hotels built in San Francisco or San Mateo will be unionized, on their terms. 

“Workers did 53-day lockout to win that language in 2005,” said Wong. “They’re not going to give it up.”

UNITE HERE is requesting a “solidarity clause,” which would allow workers to protest if they feel any Hyatt in the US or Canada is mistreating its workers. Currently, the contract contains a clause prohibiting workers from striking, boycotting or picketing while the contract is in place. 

Neither party seems likely to give up their demand. Since 2009, UNITE HERE and other supporters have spread a boycott of Hyatt hotels throughout the country, which they claim has cost Hyatt $25 million worth of business. 

Hyatt has made strides to counter UNITE HERE in their contract campaign as well as claims that Hyatt mistreats workers. They created a website, devoted largely to countering claims made by UNITE HERE. 

Hyatt representatives have also issues statement alleging that a 2010 peer-reviewed, UNITE HERE-funded study entitled Occupational Injury Disparities in the US Hotel Industry  “distorted data to achieve a result that was negative to the hotel industry.”

The report compared injuries of workers at 50 hotel properties owned by five companies, and found that Hyatt housekeepers had the highest rate of injury.

Workers report being injured while lifting heavy mattresses that often exceed 100 pounds in order to change the sheets and cleaning slippery bathrooms. According to Wong, these issues could be addressed in part if housekeepers were given proper tools. Fitted sheets, for example, would halve the work involved in bed-making, but housekeepers are provided only with flat sheets, according to Wong.

“When the Hyatt bought their location in Santa Clara, they took away the long-handled mops and replaced them with kneepads,” she says. 

The Hyatt Santa Clara has since provided long-handled mops to its housekeepers.

But Nenita Ibe, 70, is still angry that she was made to clean the bathroom on her hands and knees.

“I would always bump my head on the sink,” Ibe told the Guardian. “It’s completely wrong.”

Ibe has also lost full use of her left arm due to the repetitive motion involved in making beds.

A similar protest at the Hyatt Santa Clara the morning of March 8 brought more than 150 supporters. A delegation also successfully met with that location’s general manager, Dania Duke. 

After meeting with the delegation, Nadelman expressed frustration to the Guardian.

“It would make a lot of sense for both Hyatt and Local 2 to sit down at the table and negotiate a new, fair contract,” he said.

“We keep asking them for dates to do this, and have yet to be given one.”

But according to Wong, UNITE HERE is willing to negotiate, but not to concede some aspects of the agreement.

“As far as this contract, they know what we are demanding and they know how to get in touch with us. We’re just going to keep fighting until that happens,” said Wong.

Sisters in struggle

UNITE HERE’s campaign against the Hyatt covers working conditions and contracts all over the country. Now, they’re also hoping to get Martha and Lorena Reyes they’re jobs back, and the campaign has galvanized support. 

The sisters filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission in November. 

Jan. 7, they met Gloria Steinem at a conference at Stanford on the future of feminism and told her their story; she signed on to the nationwide Hyatt boycott. 

The women, who worked in the hotel for decades, say they will continue to fight until they are rehired.

“We want to have respect at work and to be treated fairly and equally. WE want to also put pressure on Hyatt for us to be able to return to work.  And we want to be able to make sure that Hyatt respects women and gives them safe working conditions and job protection, not get fired like we were,” said Martha Reyes.

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