Tourists walked the sidewalk fronting the Sheraton Maui looking bewildered as they encountered the crowd of red shirts and bobbing signs that gathered at Ka‘anapali Parkway on Labor Day afternoon. Marching outside the entrance to the hotel, 200 people assembled to pressure the Marriott, Sheraton’s parent company, for a new employment contract by shouting union chants through megaphones and brandishing signs that read “One job should be enough.”
Sheraton Maui workers comprise 333 of the over 3,500 Marriott workers statewide represented by the union UNITE HERE Local 5, and had contracts that expired in June. After a summer of negotiations, these hotel employees are still without a contract.
“10 negotiating sessions and we haven’t had any real progress with Marriott or with Kyo-ya [Kyo-ya owns Sheraton Maui]. They’re disrespecting us,” said Erin Kelley, a bartender who’s worked at the Sheraton for seven years. “We’re sitting there across from them at the negotiating table in good faith, asking for a livable wage, asking for benefits for our family and for our children. They’ve totally disrespected us and just said no to all of our proposals.”
“It’s so messed up,” she added. “They’re the richest hotel management company in the world. They can’t even begin to understand the struggles that working people feel, and we’re here welcoming Marriott guests from all over the world, every single day, making memories for their vacations when we can’t even afford to make memories with our own families because we’re working.”
Marilyn, a housekeeper, echoed that the fight was about dignity and quality of life for workers and their families. “We are fighting for our contract and for our community. Everything is so expensive. I have three kids, and I am a single parent. One job should be enough,” she said.
She recalled the experience of working more than one job, when she would drop her children off to school by 7am, and work one job from 8am-4pm followed by another from 4:30-10pm. “I come home like 11:45pm and my kids are sleeping already. It’s hard. It breaks my heart to drop them to school, you know, that I no more time with them.”
Evie Chargualaf, a hotel employee since 1979, works multiple side jobs. Through tears, she talked about the effect Maui’s high cost of living has had on her family, including her son who is moving to the mainland where it is more affordable. “My three grandchildren are leaving me and it hurts me because nobody can afford homes here anymore,” she said. “You have to make $36-$39 an hour to be able to afford a home. So something’s wrong with our economy right now, something’s wrong with the Marriott, and something’s wrong with Kyo-ya because they’re not listening to us.”
Indeed, a report released this year by the National Low Income Housing Coalition titled Out of Reach 2018 stated that Hawai‘i has the highest housing wage in the nation at $36.13 per hour. The housing wage refers to the amount of money a household must earn while working full time, in order to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment without spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
“I come from this line of work myself so I know what it’s like to work two to three jobs just to make ends meet, and be dependent on tips. Sometimes you get barely minimum wage,” said Elle Cochran, county councilmember (West Maui) and candidate for mayor, who was there to show support for the hotel workers. “UNITE HERE has always stood by me before I even became a councilmember, and I will be here by your side, always,” she told the crowd. “What [the Marriott is] doing is not right and we need to stand up to them.” Cochran is endorsed by UNITE HERE Local 5 in her bid for mayor.
As time passed, the 200-person rally moved from the Parkway entrance of the hotel to the beach, in full view of beach-goers, the Sheraton, and tourists sipping sunset cocktails. Some watched intently and took videos while others just sipped, unperturbed, while the chanting and sign waving continued.
“People don’t earn enough, it’s really bad. I’m moved, even,” said Maria, a tourist from Portugal. “We’re here, and I feel bad for being here. I hope they get their jobs and I think they should go on and do your struggle. It’s the only way. I don’t know how other people react but at least the managers, they know what’s going on. I think it’s good to make tourists see what’s going on.”
Carolina, her daughter, worked at a Sheraton in Portugal and agreed. “That’s the most important part. Because the tourists don’t know what’s going on, and some maybe don’t care, but I care. Doing this in front of a Sheraton is a good tactic because you catch the attention. If you keep doing this in front of Marriott hotels I think someday it will make a difference.”
On the sand, Evie spoke through a megaphone while her co-workers shouted back responses and continued to voice their discontentment with the Marriott and their negotiations. “Do they care about us? (No!) Do they care that we smile everyday to take care of our guests and make them happy so they come back over and over again? (No!) Do they care about our well-being, our livelihood, our health, our safety, that we have to smile while our backs are hurting and our ankles are ready to buckle underneath us? No, they don’t care.
“All they care about is money. But we work hard. We work hard. We’ve made them millionaires. Where is our share? Where is our share of what we deserve?”
These contract negotiations come after Hawai‘i’s visitor industry had a record-setting year in 2017. Additionally, the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority stated in their July 2018 monthly report that year-to-date visitor spending is up 9.8 percent statewide, with total visitors in July reaching 939,360, an increase of 5.3 percent and “the most ever for any month in Hawai‘i’s history.”
Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson has cashed in on Hawai‘i’s tourism success, making more than $13.3 million last year – 395 times what Marriott’s median employee made ($33,697).
At the end of the rally, UNITE HERE Local 5 organizer Lisa Grandinetti congratulated the hotel workers for uniting for the biggest rally the Sheraton Maui has had in about 20 years. “We’re still in negotiations,” she said, “but Marriott and Kyo-ya showed that they’re not gonna listen to us. They rejected our workload proposals, they rejected our job security proposals, they rejected our wage proposals. So what, are we gonna stop?”
From the look and sound of it, absolutely not.
Sheraton Maui workers are preparing to vote on Monday Sep. 10 to decide whether they should go on strike. “Nothing is happening at the negotiation table and our workers are ready to take it to the streets,” stated Grandinetti, who is “really confident that the workers are ready to take the next step to put pressure on the company.”
Evie is one of those workers. “Let them hear our voices as long as we need to until we win,” she said.