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The Price of a Good Night’s Sleep
Posted on Feb 7, 2012
By Scott Tucker
The price of a good night’s sleep should not be low wages and high injury rates among hotel workers. We must keep in mind that a degree of class mobility is compatible with the usual class cruelty. For anyone who does not belong to the very capstone of the American social pyramid, the old slogan of the labor movement is gaining a new and terrible meaning: An injury to one is an injury to all.
That’s why Out and Occupy, a new group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer and transgender people inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, will be celebrating an early Valentine’s Day on Feb. 11 with the hotel workers of Hyatt Andaz West Hollywood and with members of the progressive labor union Unite Here. We’ve had enough of a bad romance with corporate serial seducers, and we’re breaking up with “gay friendly” businesses that don’t respect workers of all sexual persuasions. I am not a saint of any kind nor a professional revolutionary. My own case is simpler: I worked in some low wage jobs when I was young, but today I am a middle-class writer who prefers to travel and rest in comfort. But just step outside our doors and what do we find? We are lost in the dark woods of the “free market,” and the wolves do not just happen to be other human beings. No, they happen to be the ruling class. So enough already with the ghastly glamour of “arriving,” always upward and onward, in the same old grand ballroom of grand illusions.
I am writing a public appeal for solidarity with the hotel workers of Los Angeles, but you should know where I come from. I do not digress, but I do insist on the personal dimension of any political movement. I come from a family fractured in part by the American class system, but also from a movement of radical social change often dismissed to this day as a “wedge issue” and as “identity politics.” To the Democratic Party I owe nothing, and to the “progressives” who now urge us all to vote by rote for the candidates of their choice I owe my continuing resistance. Barely 12 percent of American workers are now members of labor unions, and the burden of blame does not rest only with the Republican Party. If we measure the evidence in truly historical scales of justice, then career politicians of the Democratic Party also bear a heavy share of responsibility for unleashing the “free market” on working people. Bill Clinton played a leading role in the deregulation of banks and Wall Street. Barack Obama rehired many of the old regime Clintonistas back into his campaign of “hope and change.”
Nearly all hotel housekeepers are women, and the majority are women of color and immigrants. Corporate hotel chains such as Hyatt, Hilton, Starwood and Marriott have increased both the amount and the pace of work done by housekeepers in recent years, with high rates of injury documented by a team of researchers from four universities and Unite Here in a 2009 article in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Among 50 hotel properties of five companies examined in the report, Hyatt housekeepers had the highest overall rate of injuries. Lifting heavy mattresses, scrubbing bathroom floors and clearing trash will take a physical toll on the sturdiest worker. Understaffing and unsafe work conditions add to the dangers and injuries. Housekeepers at some Hyatt hotels clean as many as 30 rooms a day, nearly double the number generally required at hotels with good union contracts.
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Contradictions? Certainly. Welcome to the contradictions of class and immigrant labor that run through daily life and the entire economy. Few of us are living lives of isolated virtue, and what would be the point of virtue in isolation? Saving souls belongs in the realm of faith, but economic justice does have an irreducibly moral dimension. When we treat one another only as the means to personal comfort and profit, the hidden injuries of class are openly advertised in our own actions.
Every great movement for social change includes fracture lines of class division and exploitation. The movement for the human rights and social dignity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and transgendered people is no exception. HRC’s Corporate Equality Index gives the Hyatt Hotel chain a perfect score for domestic partner benefits, health insurance and relocation expenses, and in addition Hyatt has sponsored HyPride, described in a New York Times Business Day Markets report of Dec. 8, 2011, as “an employee-networking group for members and supporters of the LGBT community.”
Yet domestic partner benefits will not be an immediate benefit to a housekeeper of any sexual persuasion who is neither married nor domestically partnered, yet who may suffer serious injuries through daily shifts of heavy lifting, scrubbing and pushing carts through hallways. A housekeeper or a dishwasher crippled by severe carpal tunnel syndrome may well need health insurance, but may not be able to find a safer job. And for many immigrant workers, the notion of relocation expenses may be quite remote—unless they are bumped out of work entirely and are forced to pay to relocate out of their own pockets.
This Corporate Equality Index is measuring a package of benefits of greatest use to employees already placed on the upper rungs of the corporate ladder. Indeed, by calculating quite precisely the cost of such benefits, many companies are able to show the friendly face of “equal opportunity” managers to a chosen spectrum of customers. This is an essential element of “niche marketing” no matter what particular group a business hopes to attract and no matter what the demographic percentage may be. You do not have to be a gay socialist (though I am) to wonder whether the Corporate Equality Index of the Human Rights Campaign is an accurate measure of the defense of human rights among workers rather than one more index of corporate inequality. You only have to pay attention to the difference between the values and principles advertised by career politicians and corporations and the actual condition of the working classes in this country and beyond all borders.
Managers are not members of the 1 percent, much less the upper 10th of 1 percent—that stratosphere in which the ruling class truly rules through both wealth and command of armed power. Managers do, however, enforce corporate regulations upon workers below them, as measured by the steep drops in wages, benefits and respect. Even the kindest manager will sometimes have to choose between kindness to a fellow worker and enforcing the corporate-command economy through “the rules of the house.”
In the United States, we have even reached a point where the number of women or African-Americans or gay people, for example, who shatter “glass ceilings” in corporate headquarters is regarded as a key index of social mobility and even of social equality. We end up looking at a thousand fragments of upper management and the upper class, all highly profiled and brightly glittering, without finding in that shattered mirror any fair reflection of the power of class and capital.
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