March 7, 2008

Students Join Ithacans in Fast For Hotel Workers' Right to Earn Living Wage

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Yesterday at noon marked the end of a 40-hour fast for a group of local activists, including Fil Eden ’10, Carlos Rymer ’09, Stephanie Knight ’09 and Molly Bryson ’10, who participated in the event organized to advocate for local hotel workers’ rights. About 30 Ithaca residents gathered outside of the Hilton Garden Inn Hotel in Ithaca for the end of the fast, which coincided with the release of a settlement from the National Labor Relations Board regarding files charged against the hotel in defense of workers’ rights.
The settlement, released yesterday by the NLRB, upheld the charges of unfair labor practices filed by the Tompkins County Workers’ Center against the Hilton, which accused the hotel of violating federal labor law by disregarding workers’ freedom of association.
The charges were filed on behalf of Michelle Lopez, who was fired from her job as a housekeeper for the Hilton after advocating for the formation of a union. According to Pete Meyers, co-founder of the TCWC, which helped organize the fast, the hotel’s management threatened to fire workers who discussed Lopez’s dismissal.
Meyers said the settlement represented a partial victory for local workers, as it mandated that the Hilton post a statement for 60 days informing workers of their right to assemble and discuss workplace conditions.
“From the beginning of the TCWC claim filed against us on behalf of Ms. Lopez in November, we have happily cooperated with the NLRB’s investigation into her allegations,” James Bouderau, general manager of the Hilton Garden Inn of Ithaca, stated in an e-mail.
“The right to organize is legally protected. Our hope is that by bringing to light the injustices and illegal activity of the hotel industry in this area, we can put enough pressure on the hotels to change their practices,” said Eden, who is president of the Cornell Organization for Labor Action.
Prof. Lance Compa, industrial and labor relations, spoke at yesterday’s press conference.
“Freedom of association is a human right,” Compa affirmed.
He clarified that this freedom protects workers right to form trade unions and all forms of concerted action among employees.
While Eden acknowledged that the NLRB’s settlement may not lead to any tangible repercussions, he said that the TCWC is helping to draw attention to the issue of workers’ rights.
“Though [the settlement is] not a huge step, this isn’t insignificant,” Eden said. “It shows the Hilton we’re watching and lets the workers know they have support if they choose to organize.”
Meyers stated that the TCWC did not pursue the charge against the hotel in response to Lopez’s dismissal. According to Meyers, the NLRB, based in Washington D.C., is a five-member board controlled by appointees of the Bush administration and would most likely rule in favor of the hotel’s management.
Bouderau applauded the NLRB’s decision not to challenge Lopez’s dismissal.
“We were extremely pleased that her allegations were dismissed by the board,” Bouderau stated. “I find it extremely unfortunate and disappointing that the TCWC chooses to pursue frivolous litigation on behalf of disgruntled former employees rather than productively and positively working with business to further their cause.”
The TCWC embarked on the campaign to protect the rights of hotel workers in Ithaca about a year ago. Its actions have since targeted the local hotel industry, which has been accused by local activists of mistreating its employees who reportedly earn salaries below the official poverty line.
“The hotel industry is very much reliant on the Cornell community,” said Eden, president of the Cornell Organization for Labor Action. “The choices we make have a significant impact on their policies and the lives of the hundreds of hotel workers in the area.”
According to a 2007 study by the Alternatives Federal Credit Union, a single individual living without children requires an annual income $20,450.21, or $9.83 per hour, 40 hours per week, in addition to the cost of health insurance. However, the TCWC claims that in Ithaca, there are over 600 workers employed by hotels as custodians, desk clerks and house keepers, who are paid a general wage that falls between $7.15 and $8.00 an hour.
One exception, however, is the University-owned Statler Hotel, where entry-level jobs typically pay $12 an hour.
“Poverty wages keep people at that level and do not allow for progress,” asserted Rymer, president of the Sustainability Hub. “While a living wage allows people to seek education and better opportunities, which in turn result in higher economic productivity. We can’t support poverty wages in a country where market equilibrium wages are significantly higher than the minimum wage.”