Union helped hotel worker stand up to IMF chief

Several articles in the major media are discussing the high risk of sexual assault that housekeepers face in hotels. Sexual assault and harassment is rampant, maids are afraid to complain to management because of fear of losing their jobs and perpetrators think there is little chance they’ll get caught.

Dominique-Strauss Kahn, former chief of the International Monetary Fund, wasn’t so lucky, however, because he picked the wrong place to prey on a worker – a union hotel in New York.

“After he was arrested there was a lot of self-congratulatory praise and back slapping for how well this was handled in the United States, as opposed to how it might have been handled in some European countries, including France,” said Tula Connell, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO. (A number of articles on the case claim matters involving sexual predation are more routinely swept under the rug in European countries.)

“But speaking out publicly against so powerful a world figure from the vantage of a hotel-maid required guts and, in addition, it required a union.”

Connell cited an article by Adele Stan, an independent journalist, that said, “By any measure it was risky. There’s a reason most rapes go unreported. But there was one thing that the housekeeper knew could not be done to her for reporting her account, she could not be fired because of her membership in a union, the New York Hotel Trades Council.”

In a statement issued by the labor-backed Center for Economic Policy and Research, their director Dean Baker said, “In this particular case, the housekeeper belonged to a union that has provisions in its contract that require the management to take cases of sexual assault seriously. This meant the housekeeper knew that she could make a complaint to management and not worry about being ridiculed or putting her job at risk.”

In an editorial on its website  , the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council said “New York is the wrong place to prey on hotel workers. It has the highest proportion of unionization in the hotel industry, 75 percent.”

Most workers in the hospitality industry are non-union and have few rights. They can be disciplined or fired without cause at any time. Those who are undocumented live almost entirely without any protection from the law.

The union says that management philosophy in the luxury service business expects workers to behave with extreme civility toward customers, who are called “guests.” The “customer is always right” philosophy holds sway, the union says.

A maid from Mexico working at a luxury hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona ran into problems on May 22 when she knocked on a customer’s door for the nightly turndown service.

The customer, an older man with gray hair, was alone when she opened the door.

“Would you like me to turn down your sheets?” the maid asked.

When the customer declined, the maid offered some chocolates.

“That would be perfect,” the man said.

But before the maid could hand him the candies, he opened his zipper and exposed himself.

“I handed him the candies and quickly left,” said Imma, 45, a resident of Phoenix to a reporter from the Arizona Republic.

Hotel maids, the vast majority of them immigrant women, face sexual harassment on a regular basis, said Annemarie Stassel, a spokesman for Unite Here which represents more than 100,000 housekeepers nationally. “We know these things happen and that is why whenever workers choose union representation we make sure there are strong clauses in the contract to protect against assault and harassment.”

Stassel said the most common incidents are men answering the door naked, and workers being asked for sex, with or without pay.

In union hotels, the procedure instructs women cleaning rooms to leave the room doors open and use their cleaning carts to block the doorway. They remain vulnerable, however, because they work alone and when inside a room they are out of view of security cameras.

Since the Strauss-Kahn arrest, many are speaking out more to one another, according to Arelia Valdiva, an organizer with Unite Here, Local 11 in Los Angeles.

She said that this week a maid told her that while she was cleaning a bathroom, the customer returned intoxicated and said something was wrong with the TV. When she entered the room she saw that the TV was working and that the customer was watching a pornographic movie.

Stassel said maids often don’t report sexual harassment because “it happens so often.”

“Union contracts are important,” she said, “because they empower workers to speak up and demand justice.”

Photo: Empowered union hotel workers practicing civil disobedience techniques for a 2010 rally in Chicago. (Photo courtesy Local 1, Unite Here)



John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward, as a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee, and as an activist in the union's campaign to win public support for Wal-Mart workers. In the 1970s and '80s he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.