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(en) Canada, Toronto, Strike # - THE MEMBERS ARE THE UNION: THE METROPOLITAN HOTEL WORKERS RANK-AND-FILE COMMITTEE by Jeff Shantz

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Thu, 8 Jul 2004 22:05:16 +0200 (CEST)


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The hotel industry is the largest employer of immigrants, women of colour and
single parents. It is generally acknowledged that hotel workers, across the
industry, face horrible working conditions. Long hours of work are matched
with low pay and unsafe working conditions. Too often these conditions are
also matched with an inactive and compliant union leadership that views these
problems as "part of the business." This has been the case for workers at
Toronto's Metropolitan Hotel, where conditions are so miserable that workers
accurately refer to it as a "five star sweatshop." Unfortunately, as is all
too common, when the Met workers turned to their union, HERE Local 75, for
support their concerns were ignored, minimized or dismissed.

Faced with an ongoing situation of brutally racist management, awful
working conditions and a union that can only be described as servile,
rank-and-file workers at the Metropolitan decided to get organized to
take care of things themselves. Last year several workers came together
to form the Metropolitan Hotel Workers Committee, a committee
made up strictly of rank-and-file members, to share information and
strategize effective actions and campaigns to improve working
conditions and put an end to harsh management practices. Within
months, more than one-quarter of the Metropolitan's workers had
joined the committee. This is a crucial struggle for rank-and-file
workers, most of whom are immigrant women. Of the approximately
200 workers at the Met, more than two-thirds are women, most of
Filipino, Chinese, South East and South Asian and West Indian
backgrounds.

The quick growth of the Committee speaks both to the seriousness of
the problems facing Met workers and the longstanding need for
effective action to deal with the issues given the union's
unresponsiveness. Housekeeping workers have been made sick from
the regular use of chemicals that are not even properly labeled. One
estimate suggests that one in ten workers at the Met presently suffers
from some type of workplace injury. One worker was forced by
management to leave the Met after 14 years when she developed
cancer. By law the workplace is required to have a joint health and
safety committee, including Local 75 representation, but the union reps
have had no contact with the workers, despite repeated requests, and
have done nothing even to ensure proper labeling (let alone to support
work refusals).

Shift hours are another serious problem as workers are forced to work
as many as 16 hours without a break. When one banquet worker took a
cookie that was going to be thrown out, after she had worked all day
without a dinner break, she was disciplined for taking company
property. Even when workers skip food breaks because of job demands
the company still takes a half-hour deduction from their pay.

Racism is rampant among hotel management who regularly discipline
workers for speaking languages other than English, even if it's
simply with fellow workers. One worker of Pakistani background was
driven from his job for praying, in the staff room, as part of the racist
backlash after September 11, 2001. Incredibly, Local 75 has offered as
an excuse for its failure to file grievances the fact that the local's
staff do not speak the languages of the workers and cannot offer
translations.

So, one might ask, where has the supposedly progressive union, HERE
Local75, been through all of this? Unfortunately, but hardly
surprisingly, they've decided to put most of their energies into
fighting, not the boss, but the rank-and-file committee. As the Met
Workers' Committee noted in a letter to Local 75 president Paul
Clifford, "there comes a point where ineffective union
representation goes over to a regime of open collaboration with
management." Local 75 has long been complicit in
management's treatment of workers, with stewards refusing to file
grievances on the advice of managers. Since the formation of the
rank-and-file committee have even joined with management to target
activists. One worker was berated by a steward in front of a Department
Manager for associating with members of the Committee. This same
worker was told that he and two other workers were being put on a
"blacklist" for being seen talking with Committee members
while away from the workplace. Recently the union rep and the
Met's manager jointly called a meeting with shop stewards to
co-ordinate an attack on the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
(OCAP) which has supported the Committee's efforts. Workers
were then pressured in the presence of management, to sign a
statement demanding that OCAP stay away from the hotel. Faced with
inaction, obstruction and outright hostility, from Local 75 leadership,
the Met Workers finally decided to take things into their own hands. A
true rank-and-file movement has come together to take on the boss in
a manner that is direct and effective. Despite the hostility of Local 75
leadership the Committee has already made some important gains.
Grievances have been satisfactorily resolved and Committee members
have done skill-sharing with each other to teach themselves how to
take grievances forward. This is do-it-yourself solidarity unionism
where members look after each other, share resources and determine
their course of action collectively – a real model for anarchism at
work. Within weeks of forming the MHWC, workers were able to have
a particularly nasty manager removed. This after repeated requests to
Local 75 to do something about this manager had left the situation
unchanged. Due to the efforts of the Met Workers Committee a
conference scheduled to bring 300 people to the Met was cancelled, a
move that stunned management. Through a series of direct actions and
rallies the Committee has confronted the hotel management directly
with demands that management rehire, with compensation, all
victimized workers who have been forced from their jobs and stop the
practice of harassing and firing injured workers. The response of Local
75 leadership has been a textbook example of business unionism,
shrouded in pleas that the workers stop interfering in the work of a
progressive local. In addition Local 75 reps have taken the position, so
typical of union leadership, that the rank-and-file committee is a
divisive threat to the union itself. The president and staff, despite being
aware that more than one-quarter of the Met workers had joined the
Committee, has publicly dismissed the group as the work of a couple of
malcontents.

Given the actions of leadership, a delegation of Committee members
went directly to the HERE Local 75 offices to address the union's
lack of support for workers. MHWC members put forward their many
concerns and asked what support the leadership was prepared to offer.
The Committee was straightforward in their message: "Believing
as we do that a union can only be as strong as its members; we have
formed our Committee as a means of intervening to ensure that Henry
Wu [Metropolitan owner] and his managers are challenged as they
need to be. This must mean, however, that our Union's staff and
elected representatives put into effect a number of changes in their
dealing with our employer." The Local 75 staff and reps made it
clear, in arrogant and patronizing terms, that they were not interested
in any sort of serious battle with the employer. After the abuses
suffered were laid out in detail the president responded "welcome
to the hotel sector" (to members with a decade or more of
experience) as if these are simply facts of life that workers should put
up with as a condition of employment. The leadership even suggested
that the workers wait until 2007 when everything would get better after
the HERE merger with UNITE.

In a letter delivered to HERE Local 75 leadership, the Met Workers
served notice that they would not put up with the rotten combination of
brutal management and a compliant union. "A group of us who
work at the hotel have decided to set up a workers' committee to deal
with these problems. We intend to take action against unfair and harsh
conduct by the employer AND to demand that our union start
representing us properly. We are not anti- union but we do want a
union that works for us and the only way we can win this is to make
sure that the ordinary members take control of it as they have a right to
do." While the leadership bemoan the lack of translators, without
explaining why a union would hire staff who don't speak the same
language as large proportions of the membership, the Met Workers
Committee members have shared skills with each other to teach
themselves how to pursue grievances and work refusals. While the
union's top-down authoritarian structure prevents it from drawing
on the skills and talents, including multilingualism, of members, the
Met workers have provided translations skills that have allowed OCAP
to expand its own anti-poverty casework to people it otherwise could
not have assisted.

All along the MHWC has maintained that they identify, not only as
members of a particular union or as part of a specific workplace, but on
a broad working class basis. Thus they have reached out to poor and
unemployed workers in community groups like OCAP as well as
making alliances with rank-and-file members of other unions, such as
the Anti-Poverty Working Group of CUPE (Canadian Union of Public
Employees) 3903. With support from these groups the MHWC has
organized several direct actions and rallies at the workplace. In addition
the Committee has broadened its efforts to take the boss on in the
community as well as the workplace. Met Workers have worked with
the CUPE 3903 Anti-Poverty Working Group to press York University
to remove the Met's owner, Henry Wu, from the Board of the
York Foundation. This class-based organizing is significant, not only in
terms of bringing greater resources to bear on the situation, but also in
helping to break down the sectoralism that often keeps working class
folks divided by workplace, union or employment status.

As the Committee has grown and enjoyed some successes they have
been approached by workers from other hotels to see about starting
similar committees in more workplaces. These are crucial steps in
building a vital network among rank-and-file activists geared towards
autonomy and self-activity. Significantly the MHWC has focused its
efforts on building an informed and active rank-and-file base rather
than putting together a reform slate for infrequently held executive
elections. These efforts will do more than any left-led reform
movements, leadership slates or caucuses to establish the basis for a
revitalized and militant workers' movement.

*******************************************

This article is a preview of the debut issue of "Strike!"

Strike! is a tabloid newspaper covering the ever important struggles of
working people in the Northeast and across the world. From
community and workplace resistance, to the fights against racism and
sexism as well as international turmoil, the struggles that rock your
world are brought to you here with a fresh anarchist-communist
perspective.

Strike! is the English-language agitational publication of the
Northeastern Federation of Anarcho-Communists (NEFAC). We are
bilingual federation of revolutionaries who identify with communist
tradition in anarchism. Our activity in the last few years has focused
around radicalizing the broad struggles of our class, in the streets, in
our workplaces and in our neighborhoods.

Strike! has come to exist after a long process of rethinking our
agitational publications following the end of Barricada magazine, which
for a time was a NEFAC affiliated magazine.

In this issue of Strike!, you will find articles on rank and file labor
struggles, tenant union organizing, eco-racism, indigenous struggles,
and direct action in the streets! Plus, there is a regular column about
GI resistance within the military, and a pro-queer/feminist advice
column.

Strike! can be obtained in most large cities in the Northeast. NEFAC
members will be making a special efffort to have it available in
community centers, left bookshops and at picket lines and
demonstrations.

Bulk orders and subscriptions can be made with the Stelton Anarchist
Collective: PO BOX 3107 New Brunswick, NJ 08903, or contact:
skip@nefac.net

For letters to the editor, content questions, submissions, and press
exchanges, contact Class Action at: classaction@nefac.net

Also, brand new issues of NEFAC's other publications (The
Northeastern Anarchist, Ruptures and Cause Commune) are set to hit
the newstands very soon!


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