You are here

Hotel Workers Rising Campaign Kickoff Speech by Change to Win Chair Anna Burger

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

February 15, 2006
San Francisco, CA

I'm here with a simple message.

Last year was a year of decision.

This year is a year of action.

Last year, we decided to debate the future of the labor movement. We decided to sever the bonds that had kept us tied to the past and the AFL-CIO, and we decided to strengthen the bonds that join our 7 unions to one another.

This year, we take our united strength - the strength of nearly 6 million members -- and turn it to action on the part of working families.

Those of you who know me know that I was born into the labor movement. My mom was a nurse, my dad was a truck driver - a Teamster. When my father was disabled in a terrible accident - three things got my family through: Mom's incredible strength, Dad's Social Security and Medicare, and a labor movement that raised up whole communities.

In my first job out of college, I was a Case Worker in Philadelphia -- our office was an old Cadillac warehouse. The working conditions were horrible, and it all came to a head, one month in, when a rainstorm sent water started pouring through the ceiling. As we debated going on a wildcat strike I did something I hadn't done in a while - I asked my Dad for advice.

He said, "Anna, whatever you do, stick to the union, it's what makes a difference for working people like us."

I did.

We struck.

And we won.

Since that day, I've been sticking by the union. I know you have, too.

But the problem is... our country hasn't.

Every single minute of every day of my life, America has lost two union jobs.

Now, I know a woman doesn't tell you her age, but that's two jobs every minute since 1950. [1]

I refuse to accept that as inevitable.

When large businesses merge, what's the first thing they announce? Layoffs. Job Losses.

But when we decided to come together, we said that it would be accompanied by the opposite: organizing victories.

And the hotel workers raising campaign is going to be just one of those victories.

We need victories like that because right now the deck is stacked against America's workers.

Take a look at California. Since the year 2000, California has been growing more unequal than all but five other states. Today, California has the sixth greatest gaps between the rich and the poor. [2]

We always knew this gap weakens America... but now we've seen the tragic impact first hand. We saw that when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. When workers in New Orleans - were left to fend for themselves, to live or die as the floodwaters rose because they didn't have the bus fare or cars to get out of town.

Some of them were hotel workers who were denied shelter in the very buildings where they had offered hospitality to so many visitors.

That's not right. It's not humane. And it's not the America we believe in.

So how did it happen?

The hotel industry used to be local players in local markets. Like so many other industries, it is now dominated by multi-national consortiums. In the last couple of years, that has meant near-record occupancy rates, and for a company like Starwood - billions of dollars in profits.

That profit has allowed these companies to invest in some lovely amenities for the guest, but it has also meant squeezing the workers harder and harder.

The average bed in many hotels now has at least 20 components - six pillows, a bolster (I don't even know what that is), a skirt, a comforter, a comforter cover, a scarf, and a duvet that weighs, on average, 23 pounds.

Multiply changing a bed like that - 26 times, and cleaning 16 bathrooms... and vacuuming... and dusting and mopping 16 rooms... and doing it in less than a half-hour a room -- and what has it meant for the workers? Repetitive motion injuries. Strained backs and arms. A recent study conducted here at UCSF found that three out of four housekeepers experience "very severe" pain. Eighty-four percent of housekeepers are taking pain medication for injuries incurred at work.

Here's what the study's author, a doctor, had to say: "Nobody should be working in conditions like that."

When one of the hotel chains was confronted with the findings from this study, here's what one of them had to say: "Since we put in the new bedding, satisfaction scores went up significantly... It tells you how much people value a good night's sleep."

That's fine for people to value a good night's sleep. The question is how much we value the people who make it possible.

Low-wage jobs are only low-wage jobs when we allow employers to pay low wages.

Back in the 1950s, it wasn't that the guy on the assembly line who was turning the same bolt over and over had an inherently good job that was valued. It's that his union and the voice he had through his union insisted on giving that job value.

The same is true today. It's not that the person who cleans an office, or takes care of someone else's children, or harvests or prepares food isn't doing a job of value. It's that our voices, together, are what will make those jobs of value.

And so that brings me to the two questions the name of our coalition begs: what will change and what will we win?

Already, we've begun to see what is going to change. We're not going to compete among ourselves for the best ideas... we're going to share them. We're not going to sacrifice our individual unions proud histories... we're going to build on them.

We're realizing that many of the concerns we faced as individual unions are no longer local -- or specific to our sectors -- they're global, and the techniques that work for the Food and Commercial Workers· can work for the Service workers. As construction globalizes, the Carpenters can work together with the Laborers, and achieve something they couldn't have achieved alone.

Look at how a hotel gets built in America today: chances are it's going to be built by a global construction company, and operated by a global chain. In a Change to Win world - we're going to guarantee dignity every step of the way. It's the Teamsters bringing the materials to the jobsite... the Carpenters and Laborers doing the work... and when the hotel opens, it's UNITE members doing the housekeeping, SEIU members providing janitorial services, UFCW members in the restaurant preparing food that was harvested by the Farm Workers. We're all united in a global economy. Change to Win recognizes that if we're united in our efforts, we can bring dignity to the workers that make the global economy work.

And something else changed -- and we saw it at our founding convention: we learned that we could listen to each other, hear each other, disagree, find common ground -- and stay together. We recognized that when we pool our strengths, we each get stronger.

The campaign that is being kicked off today by the hotel workers isn't just about walking the picket line. For the rest of our Change to Win unions, it isn't just about respecting the picket line... it's about what's waiting for people at the end of the picket line:

* The ability to provide for ourselves and our families

* Health care that is affordable and available

* The opportunity to educate our children

* The chance to work our way up into the middle class

* A retirement of dignity after a lifetime of work

Everybody deserves each of those things. Everybody.

Nobody who works should be left behind -- not by the rising waters of a flood, and not by the rising tide of inequality.

A lot of us are here today because we were sick and tired of spending time in endless meetings where people would get up and say, "Something should be done."

When someone says "something should be done," they usually mean "someone else should do it."

Our challenges are too great. We can't sit around and wait for someone else to do it. Not the Republicans. Not even the Democrats. Not big business. As Martin Luther King said, "No social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals."

It's up to us. We're the someone. We've been working for change, but we've also been waiting for change. You know what? We're the people we've been waiting for.

When hotel workers are waiting for fair wages -- we're the people we've been waiting for.

When janitors are waiting for justice - we're the people we've been waiting for.

When American families are wondering when work will finally be rewarded as much as wealth - we're the people we've been waiting for.

And as people will learn in the next couple of weeks from Los Angeles to Boston -- the time for waiting is over. The time for action has begun.

Thank you.

[1] 14,282,000 union members in 1949, 35.4% (DOL, Industrial and Labor Relations Review) 15,700,000 union members in 2005, 12.5% of wage and salary workers (BLS). If we had the same rate of union membership as we had in 1950, we would have 44,500,000 union members. With this assumption, we've been losing more than two union jobs a minute since 1950.

[2] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities - Income Inequality Report, 1/26/06

Sign Up For Updates

Good Jobs Now!

The great American middle class wasn’t something that just happened – it was built brick by brick. It was built by soldiers returning from war and a government that repaid them by giving them a shot at college.