IRVINE, Calif. — In a different time and place Joe Murphy might already be earning a good salary in the world of academe. Instead, the 24-year-old graduate of Notre Dame, where he earned a BA in American Studies, finds himself, by day, hauling laundry in a big hotel here for $8.85 an hour and, by night, organizing a union.
Due to his efforts and those of some of his friends history was made earlier this month when almost the entire work force walked off the job in a one-day strike August 9 to protest years of being denied the right to take breaks. It was history because organized strikes by non-union workers are rarely seen, particularly in an economy where many with any kind of employment consider themselves lucky.
How does a college grad in the middle of the country end up hauling laundry, going on strike and helping lead a union organizing drive at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Irvine, Calif.?
Murphy, who spoke on his cell phone Wednesday morning as he waited to punch in for his shift, said the answer was simple. "When there aren't enough jobs you take what you can get and then if there is injustice at the job you do get you do something about it."
He explained that he moved to California with his girlfriend a few years ago in search of opportunities not available elsewhere in the country and that, after a bunch of odd jobs, landed the full-time job as a "houseman" at the Embassy Suites.
There he delivers laundry daily to ten different housekeepers, each of whom had given him the dirty laundry from the 15 rooms she cleans. "It adds up to 150 suites full of dirty laundry. (All rooms at the Embassy Suites are actually two room suites, Murphy notes, making them more difficult to clean than rooms at other hotels.) And you often have to put the stuff in and out of the machines because the hotel has only two laundry attendants when it should have at least four."
From the $8.85 per hour salary Murphy earns the Embassy Suites deducts $142 per month for a health insurance plan that covers only himself. "Between that deduction and the rent on an apartment that I share in Santa Ana with a co-worker and gas for the ten mile drive and back I'm left with almost nothing," he said.
The one-day strike on August 9 drew the support of almost the entire workforce of 60, Murphy said, because "everyone, like me is overworked and everyone has been denied break time and that's illegal."
Murphy said that two room attendants were given verbal and written warnings when they tried to take their breaks.
The strike followed by one week the filing of complaints by the workers with the state of California saying they have been systematically denied the 10 minute breaks to which they are entitled under state law. The workers are demanding $180,000 in back pay.
Under California law, for every day that a rest break is missed the worker is entitled to one hour of back pay, and an additional hour of back pay for every day that a meal break is missed.
"What they didn't count on," Murphy said, referring to the hotel management, "is that folks who work here have relatives and friends in other hotels so they know there is a night and day difference between working here and working in a union hotel. It's why it was so easy to quickly get a majority to sign up with the union."
The Embassy Suites has said it will not recognize the union as the representative of its workers until a "secret ballot" election is held. Under current labor law even though a majority of workers have indicated by signing cards that they want the union, the company has the right to insist on that election.
"We know about how they can use that time to weaken our unity and determination," Murphy said. "But so far, they've been quiet. We haven't seen signs of anything."
Murphy said that on the day of the strike. Only two of the 60 regular employees at the hotel crossed the picket line and that since then "everyone is walking around wearing union badges and no-one from management is saying anything."
"It feels good when you see everyone with those badges," he said. "Those buttons help us feel our strength."
Murphy added, "I can't tell you how good I felt that morning of the strike. It was 4 a.m. The sun wasn't up yet and one by one they came - all my co-workers. It was 4 in the morning and already 22 had shown up! They picked up their signs and started walking the picket line. We don't even have a union yet and they are all so brave."
Photo: Joe Murphy