The Hyatt Hotel Workers’ Bitter Herbs

Yesterday I had the honor of joining a demonstration of over 100 interfaith clergy who protested outside the Hyatt Hotel Corp’s shareholders’ meeting in Chicago. Hyatt went public last November and was hoping to have a quiet, pro-forma meeting. In the end, Hyatt’s increasingly draconian labor practices made that fairly impossible.

Here’s some background from the website Hotel Workers Rising:

In city after city across North America, Hyatt Hotels is leading the fight against middle class jobs for hotel workers. Nationwide, the hotel industry is rebounding faster and stronger than expected, with a hearty rebound projected in 2011 and 2012. In the six months following Hyatt’s November initial public offering, Hyatt’s shares were up over 65%. In one day, majority owners of Hyatt Hotels, the Pritzker family, cashed out over $900 million in an initial public offering of the company’s stock. As recently as March 31, 2010 Hyatt had $1.3 billion in cash on hand.

Despite trends showing a strong recovery for the hotel industry and hotel owners, big hotel companies are still squeezing workers and cutting staff. Hyatt is the starkest example. Hyatt is using the weak economy as an excuse to slash benefits, eliminate jobs and lock workers into the recession.  In Boston, Hyatt fired their entire housekeeping staff at three non-union hotels, laying off 98 longtime housekeepers and replacing them with outsourced workers making minimum wage. Many of the fired workers report that Hyatt required that they train their replacements…

In cities across North America, Hyatt is attempting to rollback quality job standards and make the recession permanent for thousands of unionized workers. Proposals in several cities would result in the elimination of quality health care for thousands of low wage workers. Cities with contracts Hyatt union contracts expiring in 2009-2010: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, Chicago, Vancouver, Monterey, Honolulu, and Washington DC.

As previous attempts to meet with Hyatt management proved fruitless, organizers decided to use the occasion of the shareholders’ meeting to force a meeting. Our clergy group gathered outside the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place and marched up to second floor where the meeting was taking place. We were stopped at the security line, where we were told we had to be “registered shareholders” if we wanted to enter the meeting.

As security scrambled and the police were called (below), we sang outside the doors of the meeting, booming out “Open up for me the gates of justice/I will enter and praise the Holy One” (Psalm 118:19). As we sang, it became clear that the meeting was ending – and one by one the shareholders had to walk through a huge crowd of singing, clapping clergy.

Eventually, our delegation was met by Robb Webb, chief human resources officer for Hyatt. He told us that he honored our motives and he “regretted” the way the Boston firings were handled, but we had to understand that it was ultimately a “business decision” in the end. We responded that If he truly honored our motives, then he must surely understand that “it’s only business” is not an acceptable explanation. Rabbi Barbara Penzner (my Reconstructionist colleague from Boston who has been helping lead the protest of the “Hyatt 100”) pointed out that beyond the economic bottom line, there was a “moral bottom line” due the workers who help make the Hyatt shareholders’ formidable profits possible.

Barbara then presented Mr. Webb with a platter of bitter herbs (top pic), pointing out that Hyatt was indeed embittering the lives of its workers. Noting the symbolism of the Passover story, we all then ate of the maror in solidarity with Hyatt employees.

Outside (above), we shared our experiences with the demonstrating workers (who let out a huge cheer when they learned that the new Hyatt shareholders were forced to run a gauntlet of raucous, singing clergy.)

Click here to sign a pledge of support for the Hyatt 100.


4 thoughts on “The Hyatt Hotel Workers’ Bitter Herbs

  1. Hi Brant,

    Thanks for this and all you did yesterday.

    I work at the JLC in Boston, very closely with Barbara. Would you send me the photos in jpeg files so I can print them in our newsletter. I’d be happy to credit however took the photos. Did you?

    Thanks again,

    Marya Axner
    BostonJLC@aol.com
    617 277-0888

  2. Everyone I talked to was so impressed by Cantor Brant who so expertly taught and led the 100+ religious leaders in song when Hyatt management refused to let them into the shareholder meeting. The mostly Christian clergy were inspired by his teaching of the profound meaning of eating the bitter herbs as a sign of sacred empathy. Several pastors told me that sharing the bitter herbs among everyone there was very powerful.

  3. Are making beds, cleaning carpets, and serving food supposed to be “middle class jobs?” Last I checked, those were entry level positions. $15/hour and benefits seems like a pretty good set up for someone with (maybe) a high school education. When did everyone become so entitled to something for nothing?

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