Speaking of Women's Rights: Community Spotlight: UNITE HERE Local 8

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Community Spotlight: UNITE HERE Local 8

Q & A with UNITE HERE Local 8's Abby Lawlor
and Legal Voice's Sarah MacDonald

In his brief time with Legal Voice, our Senior Attorney Andrew Kashyap has been building and fostering connections with labor organizations and unions in the Northwest. These critical groups are elevating workers' voices as they demand workplace equity, safety, and living wages.

As Sexual Assault Awareness Month (April) faded into May Day—a day for solidarity and protest around worker and immigrant rights—I asked Abby Lawlor of UNITE HERE Local 8, the Northwest's hospitality union, a few questions about their work at the intersection of low-wage work, immigrant rights, and workplace sexual violence.

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Who is UNITE HERE Local 8?

UNITE HERE Local 8 is a labor union representing over 5,000 workers in the hospitality industries of Oregon & Washington State. Local 8 members work in hotels, restaurants, food service, and airport concessions. They include housekeepers, cooks, bartenders, bellmen, food and beverage servers, bussers, and dishwashers. Local 8’s parent union, UNITE HERE, represents over 270,000 hotel, food service, and gaming workers throughout the US and Canada. Local 8 has a highly diverse membership, comprising workers from many immigrant and refugee communities as well as high percentages of African-American, Latino, and Asian-American workers. The majority of our members are women. Through organizing, Local 8 members aim to transform thousands of traditionally low-wage jobs into good, family sustaining jobs. We fight for living wages, job security, a voice on the job, safety and respect in the workplace, and affordable family health insurance.

What projects or initiatives are you currently working on?

In 2016, UNITE HERE Local 8 worked to pass Seattle Initiative 124 (I-124), which extended critical workplace health and safety protections to all hotel workers in the city, whether or not they have a union. These include panic buttons and other protections from sexual harassment and assault and protections from workplace injury as well as access to affordable family healthcare and job security. We are currently working on the implementation of the initiative—providing input into the administrative rules and spreading the word to hotel workers about their new rights.

I-124 was a huge step forward in terms of the standards for hotel workers in Seattle. In 2018, a number of our union contracts are up at Seattle hotels. Hundreds of our members will be at the table to negotiate new collective bargaining agreements, which will be another opportunity for us to keep making gains for hotel workers. Lastly, we are always supporting non-union workers as they organize their workplaces and become union members. The food service workers at Lewis and Clark College in Portland and at the Facebook offices in Seattle recently joined our union, and we expect more hospitality workers in the region to follow suit this year!

The #MeToo movement created an important platform for survivors of sexual violence to raise their voices and demand change. But it often feels like the broader movement is leaving out the voices of hotel workers, who face incredible rates of workplace sexual harassment and assault. Why do you think this is?

It’s important to note that this movement isn’t new. Women in our union have been fighting back against workplace harassment for over a hundred years, dating back to when it was the Waitresses’ Union Local 174. And Seattle workers were able to pass an initiative legislating workplace sexual harassment protections a year before the accusations against Harvey Weinstein became headline news. But it’s true that low-wage workers haven’t been at the center of the #MeToo spotlight.

It’s impossible to talk about the risks facing hotel workers without also talking about the broader injustices in our economy. Hotel housekeepers face incredible rates of workplace sexual harassment and assault, as well as workplace injury, because they are low-income women of color (in Seattle, a majority of whom are also immigrants and refugees) who work for profit-driven multi-national hotel companies. Reducing their risk of experiencing harassment and assault may start with panic buttons, but it has to also include a safe workload, a living wage, a voice on the job, healthcare access, job security, and real mechanisms for holding their employers accountable.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel like the broader #MeToo movement is at a point yet of moving to tackle these larger issues starting with the people who are most impacted and most vulnerable.

That said, I’ve been more encouraged than discouraged at the extent to which the experiences of women working in the service industry have made their way into the discourse around #MeToo. The conversation happening now feels like a significant step forward from the conversations we were having around I-124 in 2016. There’s more focus on how economic inequality and discrimination put women and LGBTQ people of color at greater risk of violence. And there’s been some acknowledgement that building power for workers and unions is an important part of the solution.

Workplace sexual violence is often fueled by a power imbalance between an employer or supervisor and the worker. What kinds of power dynamics are present when hotel workers are on the job? 

There are two key power imbalances at play within hotels, and which interact to amplify the risk of sexual violence for hotel workers. First, hotel workers are at a distinct power disadvantage relative to their employer and any supervisors or managers. Second, they’re also at a power disadvantage relative to hotel guests, who often have some money and some social status and who their employer is eager to keep coming back.

The vast majority of hotel workers in Seattle aren’t covered by a union contract, meaning they are at-will employees, and their employer can fire them at any time for any reason. Workers can also face discipline or retaliation and, without union representation and a real grievance procedure, have little recourse to respond. Due to economic insecurity, insecure immigration status, and other factors, hotel workers (rightly) have a lot of fear in coming forward about workplace sexual violence. And even if they do want to report, there are often language and other barriers they need to overcome in order to do so. When workers are at a power disadvantage—as housekeepers are when they’re alone in a hotel room with a guest—they become targets for harassment and violence. And when workers are afraid or otherwise unable to speak out, the situation becomes even worse.

How can people in the Legal Voice community support hotel workers and UNITE HERE! Local 8’s mission?

First, anyone who travels and stays in hotels should use the Fair Hotels program to make sure that you’re supporting union workplaces and avoiding hotels that are under boycott. You can search for hotels at www.fairhotel.org or by using the Fair Hotel app. Organizations can also sign on to become Fair Hotels partners and pledge to use your group business to support hotels and event facilities where workers have the opportunity for a better life.

Legal Voice supporters can also sign up for our email updates and/or follow UNITE HERE Local 8 on Facebook and Twitter. We’ll keep you updated about the latest ways to support I-124 and how to show up for hotel workers fighting for strong contracts later this year.