United Methodists Take Heart in Labor Agreement

July 22, 2013

*By Linda Bloom

They prayed at the picket line, listened to workers' stories, sent delegations to meet with management and supported a boycott.

So when UNITE HERE, the union of hospitality workers in the United States and Canada, recently reached a tentative labor agreement with the Hyatt Hotels Corporation, United Methodists were pleased.

The Rev. Israel Alvaran, who helped organize denominational support in northern California, said he was inspired by workers willing to take risks and make sacrifices so a global corporation would hear their concerns. "This was a David and Goliath fight," he declared.

The Rev. C.J. Hawking, a United Methodist pastor and executive director of Arise, Chicago, agreed the workers, "really put up a valiant fight." Two other hotel chains, Starwood and Hilton,already had signed agreements with workers that "provide safe working conditions and limit outsourcing," she said.

The agreement reached July 1 will go into effect upon the settlement and ratification of union contracts by Hyatt associates in San Francisco, Honolulu, Los Angeles, and Chicago, according to UNITE HERE. Key provisions include retroactive wage increases and a fair process mechanism for a union vote.

UNITE HERE will end its global boycott of Hyatt when the contracts are ratified. Hyatt agreed to a fair process for workers in some hotels immediately, but not in other hotels, said Ross Hyman, who was assigned by the AFL-CIO to work with religious supporters in Chicago. "In those hotels, the boycott will continue, even though the global boycott has ended," he clarified.

Both the California-Nevada and Northern Illinois annual (regional) conferences of The United Methodist Church officially have supported the hotel workers. That’s in keeping with the denomination's Social Principles and resolutions said John Hill, who oversees work on economic and environmental justice for the denomination’s Board of Church and Society.

Those principles are clear about rights of workers, including the need for a living wage and the right to bargain collectively, he pointed out. Whether they provide housekeeping services in hotels or harvest crops on farms, "we take our lead from the workers who are struggling to improve their own lives and conditions," Hill said. 

Chicago picket lines

In the Chicago area, about 7,000 Hyatt workers had been without a contract since Aug. 31, 2009. The economic boycott there targeted the Park Hyatt on the Magnificent Mile, Hyatt Regency on Wacker Drive and the Hyatt O'Hare.

The Rev. Teran Loeppke, a deacon in the Northern Illinois Annual (regional) Conference, wrote the legislation adopted in 2011 that created the conference's Hyatt Boycott Monitoring and Organizing Committee and supported the worker-led boycott of 16 Hyatt properties in the United States.

"I think we were one of the pieces of the comprehensive effort that has led to this whole tentative agreement," Loeppke said. "Anytime dedicated clergy and lay people get together to really focus in a concerted way…good things have the opportunity to happen."

Because the Hyatt headquarters are in Chicago, having the conference representing United Methodists in the city honor the boycott made it "that much more significant," Hyman noted.

"Methodists also played a role in trying to reach out to other organizations for them to honor the boycott," he added. When religious scholars meeting in Chicago last fall moved the headquarters hotel further from the convention center, United Methodists helped organize a Sabbath walk to accompany Orthodox Jews "so that everyone would be walking together."

Other actions included picketing and prayer, including a "flash prayer" event in the Hyatt Regency lobby. "We just really prayed and prayed, with complete earnestness, really valuing the collective prayer in the public square," Hawking said. "Stating that God’s presence was there was very powerful for management to hear and the workers to hear as well."

When religious delegations went to see Hyatt management, the workers often sent "thank you" messages as they waited, noted the Rev. Betty Jo (B.J.) Birkhahn-Rommelfanger, pastor of Incarnation United Methodist Church in Arlington Heights, Ill.

"Seeing that actually the church would be a presence for justice for them and come into their struggle meant so much to the people that I talked with," she said.

Hawking and Birkhahn-Rommelfanger were among those able to get passes "to go to back of house" at the Hyatt hotel to interview workers during their lunch hour. Jewish groups led the effort to publish a clergy report, "Open the Gates of Justice," on working conditions at Hyatt hotels.

Hawking remembers talking with one of the employees, a pastry chef and single mom. "She literally stood for 8 to 10 hours every day over her work table," she said. "It was very powerful to be in the back of the house like that and to see a glimpse of what their lives were like."

Support and solidarity in California

As in Chicago, United Methodists in the denomination’s California-Nevada Conference have focused on support and solidarity for Hyatt workers, Alvaran explained. A member of the Philippines Central Conference, he has helped organize interfaith support for workers in northern California since 2007.

In San Francisco, the union allowed them to bring clergy to organizing meetings "to provide that ministry of presence and assurance that all will be well, you don't have to fear," he said.

Alvaran believes the new tentative contract is a "huge" accomplishment, particularly in terms of a neutrality agreement that provides a "hands off" approach as workers decide how they want to organize. But, it doesn't apply to every hotel in the area, such as the Hyatt Fisherman's Wharf, which is no longer owned by the Hyatt corporation. The California-Nevada Conference approved a resolution in endorsing a worker-led boycott of the Hyatt Fisherman's Wharf in 2009.

Before the 2013 annual conference meeting in June at the Sacramento Hyatt, Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr., discussed the denomination’s position on labor issues with both with union leaders and management.

"We took seriously our responsibility to respect our relationships with our neighbors," Brown told United Methodist News Service. "We met with representatives of the labor movement that have concerns about working conditions for hotel workers and we met with the general manager and the human resources manager of the Hyatt property."

Several factors influenced the conference’s decision to have its 2014 annual session at a unionized hotel, the Hyatt Burlingame. Brown — whose parents, now retired, were both union members — was particularly pleased the contract with that hotel includes protective language that allows cancellation without penalty in the event of a labor dispute and he urged other annual conferences to do the same.

Including what is known as a force majeure clause in their hotel contracts, allowing them to move to another hotel if a boycott or worker action occurs, is the best way for church groups to help hotel workers, Hyman said, "because of the enormous consumer power that they wield."

Alvaran said that conferences could check the union’s website to see if hotels in a particular city are under a worker boycott.

*Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe. Contact her at (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.