By Jim Lair Beard
I’ve never been proficient with a musical instrument, but I’ve discovered that I am a near genius when it comes to turning a bullhorn on people who are entering a boycotted hotel. A few months back, Isaac Gomez, an organizer for UNITE HERE, Local 11, asked me to participate in a two-hour picket line at the Hyatt Andaz Hotel in West Hollywood, where I work as a waiter in the RH restaurant.
The bullhorn is a magical device that gets lots of attention from hotel guests, managers and sometimes police officers. I felt like Eric Clapton when his hands first touched a guitar. We were meant to be.
I’ve used the bullhorn a few times since that day. It’s always an interesting experience. It doesn’t matter if it’s a general strike or a meager two-hour picket that employees can participate in during meal breaks.
I once shamed a couple on the sidewalk for going into the Hyatt Andaz only to realize I was almost late for work. I quickly changed into my uniform, got onto the restaurant floor and discovered that the irate couple was my first table of the evening. The manager shook his head and laughed at me. He’d been watching my amplified protests against customers all afternoon through the window.
“You know you did this to yourself, right?” He nodded toward the angry guests.
When I greeted the table, the red-faced man did a double take. His wife’s mouth fell open. She watched me like I was a rabid dog ready to bite.
I did my job perfectly. I smiled. I went into the details of each special dish. I suggested great spots to visit while they were in West Hollywood. I asked them about themselves. Where were they from? How long were they staying? Did they have kids?
After dessert they left me a 20 percent tip and scratched their heads on the way out. I proudly brought the check over to my manager.
“You know, you should nominate me for employee of the month for turning around such an awkward situation.”
He frowned and walked away.
The Hyatt Andaz hotel has been stalled in contract negotiations with my union for almost three years. Hyatt refuses to pay workers what they’re worth. In my department alone, each employee works three or four jobs with no extra pay. In a single shift I am a waiter, a busser, a food runner, a host and sometimes a bartender. I’m afraid one day I’ll discover that I’m the manager with no comprehension of how I got the title.
Frankly, I’m tired of being taken advantage of by Hyatt. When its CEO makes more than $6 million a year and I see the rest of us struggling day by day just to pay the rent, it irks me.
Workers across the country know this is a bigger problem than one hotel chain, but Hyatt’s owners, the Pritzker family, aren’t small players. They’re billionaires. Last September, Forbes magazine listed the 400 richest Americans, and 11 of them were Pritzkers. Forget the top 1 percent, they are in the top .01 percent. They are living, breathing examples of why trickle-down economics is a naïve and dangerous idea. We’re letting diagnosable hoarders of wealth control our very lives.
If I didn’t feel so personally affected, I’d feel sorry for the super wealthy in this country. I think they have a disease. I don’t see much of a difference between alcoholics stashing booze around the house and hoarders of wealth hiding their funds in offshore bank accounts. They need every dime, untaxed.
In a diary for the Daily Kos, a writer who goes by the pseudonym MinistryOfTruth lashed out at Republican front-runner Mitt Romney for just this kind activity. “If you hide money you took out of the American economy overseas you are not a patriot.” The author wrote this after Romney released his 2010 and 2011 tax returns, revealing not only that he is taxed at a lower rate than many middle-class Americans, but he buried piles of his wealth in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland.
I’ll echo that sentiment. Mitt Romney is not a patriot, and neither are wealthy barons who cut costs by making their employees work three or four jobs at a time while building more and more hotels overseas. You are not a patriot if you prize profits over people. You are a hoarder of wealth.
Hyatt’s behavior toward my brothers and sisters across the country is just one of the many reasons that I am willing to pick up a bullhorn and risk my job. Last July at the Chicago Park Hyatt, workers picketing under the awning of the building were stunned when a manager turned on heating lamps as a tactic to get them to disperse. It was already one of the hottest days of the summer, but apparently not hot enough for the Hyatt Corp.
More recently, Hyatt threatened to pull its health care for its Chicago employees unless UNITE HERE stopped its national boycott. Essentially, Hyatt was playing a game of chicken with workers’ health care.
I also put a bullhorn in my hand because it works. In a letter dated the 25th of January, Hyatt attorney Mark Whitefield conceded that the corporation would allow the workers’ health care to continue despite the boycott.
“Be advised that Hyatt intends to continue payment of the monthly amounts required by the UNITE HERE Health fund, beyond February 29, 2012, so that Hyatt Chicago employees’ health coverage continues without interruption,” Whitefield’s letter said.
It seems that the Hyatt Corp. also felt the heat and did not want to be known as the company that held workers’ health care for ransom.
While I believe that utilizing a bullhorn is an essential skill for a union activist, I’m also of the opinion that it’s time to teach our members the importance of getting our message out to a broader audience.
I know plenty of elderly union men and women eager to learn about Facebook and Twitter—people whose legs are failing them but their fingertips are not. A few of them taught me how to use the bullhorn this past year. I plan on returning the favor by showing them how to tweet their messages far and wide. Apparently you can teach old dogs new tricks.
AP / Mark J. Terrill
Hotel workers picket in front of the Hyatt’s Andaz in West Hollywood, Calif., last September.