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.
Click here for information about the event described in this column.
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.
Yet the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation, with expensive headquarters in Washington, D.C., has repeatedly named Hyatt as one of the “Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality,” and in the case of the Hyatt hotel chain this tribute means a 100 percent rating on the Corporate Equality Index, an annual survey sponsored by HRC. The LGBT acronym means lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, and HRC is the wealthiest lobbying group in Washington claiming to champion the civil rights of the LGBT communities.
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.
If all the political trumpery of Donald Trump finds a more sophisticated voice in Penny S. Pritzker, will we pay attention to the social status of this very woman or to the fact that women too can wield ruling class power? If President Obama beats both Bill and Hillary Clinton at their own game of political triangulation, and goes on to appoint Wall Street insiders to the inner circle of his economic advisers, what is the lesson learned? That race no longer has anything to do with class in this country, or that every ruling class throughout history has learned to “change its colors” or face its own extinction? In reality, this much social change is not inconsistent with the much deeper and growing class divisions that propelled the Occupy Wall Street movement to spread throughout the United States.
If Pritzker’s name is unfamiliar to many readers, that’s because she wields much more power than many more famous rich people (including Trump) and plays an even more central role in the inner circles of the ruling class. Therefore, as befits the classier creatures of that class, she knows by second nature not to advertise her own existence with quite the same brassy bellowing as Trump. Don’t take my word for it, but consult her biography on her website and there you will find this information:
“President Obama has appointed Ms. Pritzker to the President’s Council for Jobs and Competitiveness which advises the Administration on economic growth and job creation. Ms. Pritzker previously served on the President’s Economic Advisory Board. She was National Finance Chair of the 2008 Barack Obama for President campaign and co-chair of the 2009 Presidential Inaugural Committee.”
And you will also find this information:
“She serves on the board of Hyatt Hotels Corporation.”
But that is too modest. According to George N. Schmidt, writing online at Substance News on June 12, 2011: “The key person persuading Barack Obama to abandon the AFL-CIO’s central organizing demand (and one that Obama had agreed to) was Chicagoan Penny Pritzker, the most prominent member of the billionaire Pritzker family and an owner and board member of Hyatt Hotels Inc. News reports revealed that after teachers and other union workers elected Barack Obama in 2008, Penny Pritzker led a group of the nation’s wealthiest hotel (and ‘hospitality’) owners and executives in urging the newly elected President to ignore his promise to support labor’s ‘Free Choice Act.’ ”
Hyatt Hotels Corp. owns hundreds of properties in dozens of countries. Hyatt housekeepers have the highest overall injury rates when compared with similar groups of workers in similar hotel chains. Hispanic women have higher rates of injuries than white female co-workers. Hispanic and Asian males are also injured at higher rates than white males. Racism and sexism are therefore not only personal prejudices or subjective distortions of reality. Whether we like it or not, the whole complex of attributes associated with “race”—country of origin, color of skin, language and customs—remains a tracking system for class division, low wages, unsafe work and systematic disrespect. And in this sexual division of labor, women are still doing plenty of the heavy lifting and bearing plenty of the pain as well.
Does this mean the more things change, the more they stay the same? Not quite. Cynicism of that kind (especially when expressed in mangled French) is usually a refuge for people who are too comfortable to have earned any real fatalism. The year 2011 may be remembered in the future as a year of great changes, and yet those uprisings and rebellions may rank only as tremors and temblors in comparison to the mightier earthquakes we may yet expect in the global social order. The Occupy movement created much higher levels of class consciousness over the course of less than a year. We, the people, are speaking more honestly about class and power than we were even in the year 2010. And by the year 2020, who would dare predict the scale and depth of popular rebellion from below? If we only notice that the anatomy, complexion and sexual persuasion of the ruling class are not strictly male, white and straight, then we have not yet discovered that the New World is not even new. Just as the older members of the working class may yet remember a time when even the Irish and the Italians and the Jews were not quite “white,” so we are now witnessing the age in which the ruling class changes stripes and colors like a chameleon. Technology is certainly racing ahead at a faster pace than certain age-old strategies of class rule and division.
Some of the dearest people I ever knew are now dead, but they were once lively enough to bust up a “private party” for Bill Clinton in the courtyard of Philadelphia’s City Hall on May 28, 1993. The survivors of that protest will recall that our message was loud and clear: “HIV is not a crime! Why are Haitians doing time?” In certain press and TV accounts at that time, however, the protesters were regarded as little better than terrorists. We were rude, we were determined, and once in a while we won. By June 18 of the same year, the last of the Haitian refugees had been released from Guantanamo, and were greeted in New York and Miami with cheers and champagne. That was a long legal and political battle in defense of refugees who were sweepingly suspected of being mere “vectors” of disease.
And then there was the protest in New York City, when the surging crowd of marchers swept through police lines with this roaring chant: “Arrest us! Just try it! Remember Stonewall was a riot!” Please, I anticipate all you good people with all your good reasons for recommending nonviolence. Civil disobedience I learned long ago from Tolstoy and Thoreau, from Gandhi and King, and from the Quakers who kept me company when I delivered my letter to a draft board in Media, Pa., stating my reasons for refusing draft registration. At the age of 18, I really was a religious pacifist and a Tolstoyan anarchist. Or so I hoped, because that kind of faith is always a hope. Now, at the age of 56, my view of nonviolence still has a wide horizon but is also closer to the ground. We are the 99 percent, but the 1 percent can still hire more hired guns than we can ever afford. In years past, a sane estimate of the balance of power between armed police and unarmed protesters was possible. Nowadays, residents in the White House and even the Supreme Court have made social reason a much more frightening open question. The coordinated police assaults upon Occupy encampments all across the United States will teach us to evolve or perish. People of all ages and backgrounds dared to stake out common ground and to affirm public life. We will not easily be driven back into the old habit of leaving politics to professional politicians.
Obama is not a socialist, as the “free market” fundamentalists like to claim. I am a socialist, but I know this means next to nothing unless we, the people, can join millions of others beyond our borders who have already gained sufficient political freedom—and yes, working class power—to vote for both democracy and socialism. In the United States, however, our broken economic system is integrated with our broken political system. The broken gears of the economic system mesh just well enough with the broken gears of the political system, and the mainspring of all this crazy clockwork is the accumulation of capital. The instruments of high finance became ever more occult to outsiders, though the insiders often claimed to be channeling the Genius of the Market. When the times of financial collapse come round, they do not come round with hourly or even yearly regularity. The cycles of boom and bust have a more raggedly seasonal quality, except that we may now be in a period of financial climate change. No one truly knows what comes next. The collapse of the euro and the European Union? The outbreak of new class struggles in Russia and China? Sheer incendiary shoving matches in the Strait of Hormuz?
This broken economic and political system works well enough to keep “pragmatic” career politicians in public office, and to preserve Congress as the front office of the ruling class. So, from the point of view of the 1 percent, this broken system is still a beautiful and bountiful piece of machinery. From the point of view of working people, however, the recurrent crises and collapses of global capitalism long ago became a very expensive way of doing business. Expensive not just in the nearly metaphysical units of high finance, which vanished in the void, but also expensive in the crushing expendability of human hopes, health and lives. The labor theory of value has a common sense foundation in the work of human beings, but if the humanity of workers becomes only an instrument of capital, then we can’t be surprised if the big corporate parties also treat labor unions either as arms of management or as obstacles to power. There are labor union leaders in this country who prefer to call their dwindling members “middle class.” That is not just inaccurate in any clear account of capitalists, managers and workers—it also morally and politically devious, especially in our present circumstances.
If guilt moves you to challenge the way so many Americans still live out this class system along sexual and racial lines, then far be it from me to stand in the way of guilt. But I do not really place much faith in guilt as the greatest power for social justice. A much stronger appeal should be made to solidarity, if only in the negative sense that this brutal way of life leaves no one untouched by brutality. The traditional faith I barely believed even as a boy was broken and tested by all my later years, but the Bible still holds a sunken treasure of warning. These words, for example: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” [1 John 1: 8]. Yes, and if 40 days in the desert might enlighten one person—or if 40 years of pilgrimage might save a whole people—then 400 or even 4,000 years of bloody human history may lead us at last into a clearing.
The next time you check into a hotel hoping for a good night’s sleep, don’t just say your prayers before nodding off to dream. “Attention,” wrote Simone Weil, “is prayer.” Attention must be paid to the person “offstage” who makes possible all the spectacle of effortless comfort and luxury, even at the cost of sweat and swollen joints and her own worried nights. No one is making the utopian demand that we should abolish the worst structural features of this class system by tomorrow, or the day after. Each of us can start small and start now. If you are lucky enough to sleep in peace, then look to a much wider horizon than the daily news, and take your share of work in making a kinder world.
Here’s some additional information about the February 11 rally:
WE’RE OUT… In support of Hyatt hotel workers.
Hyatt Andaz West Hollywood
8401 Sunset Boulevard
Saturday, February 11, 5 – 7 PM
An injury to one is an injury to all!
Defend fair wages, safe conditions, and respect for all workers.
Bring friends and coworkers. Street action— put some colors on!
Join Unite Here! Local 11 and Out and Occupy, a new justice coalition for all LGBTQ people in solidarity with the Occupy movement.
Unite Here! Local 11 :
Hotel Workers Rising! :
Out and Occupy: