I was a four-year old the last time Sheraton Maui employees went on strike. Back in 1990, I barely knew what was going on. I remember clinging to my mom’s denim jeans as she and other housekeeping aunties walked around a circle carrying signs mounted on wooden sticks. I don’t remember much else from that time, but I could tell that what my mom and her coworkers were doing was important, and that it was important to stand up for what’s fair.
Whatever little I remembered from 1990, it was enough to impact me into my college years at UH Manoa. “So why aren’t you interning at the state legislature?” my undergraduate advisor asked. “Don’t you want to go to law school and drive a fancy BMW?”
Dr. Ira Rohter was your typical sarcastic professor, but in that moment he was genuinely curious. Unlike the other Political Science majors, I chose to do an internship with a labor union – and not just any union. I chose to intern with Unite Here Local 5. “Because it’s my mother’s union,” I told him. “And my boyfriend’s too.”
Today, my mother is no longer the denim wearing 28-year-old, but rather a tired 56-year-old with a worn-out shoulder, counting down the years until retirement. And that boyfriend? He’s now my husband of eight years, 14 years deep in a rank and file position at the Sheraton. I, on the other hand, keep graduating from college.
Over the years, work and school have gotten in the way of us spending quality time with each other. So, when the strike commenced, I took it as an opportunity to spend more time with my husband and my mother. I joined the picket line.
The Reality: One Job Is Not Enough
Most of us don’t need to be reminded of the average cost of a single-family home on Maui, or the fact that you need an annual income of over $153,000 to afford the average house in Hawai‘i. But, the point is, our wages have yet to catch up. In the meantime, many like me still live at home, or squeeze in with other families in homes made for one. Too many of us struggle through two jobs, sometimes three, just to make it. In a family of four, it isn’t unheard of to have five or six jobs between mom, dad, and two working age children.
But for the visitor industry, 2018 has been a banner year, according to the Maui Visitors Bureau. The number of visitors is predicted to continue to increase in 2019, as Maui boasts some of the most beautiful hotels in the nation (which have been the justification for charging some of the highest prices for hotel rooms in the nation). This has fared well for Marriott, which continues to exceed its own expectations and set new record breaking profits. Indeed, last year, Marriott International CEO Arne M. Sorenson made $13,311,617 while the median worker got $33,697 – a CEO pay ratio of 395:1.
So, when Marriott and the union could not come to an agreement on a new contract in June, workers at Maui and O‘ahu hotels owned by Kyo-ya and managed by Marriott sensed unfairness. In September, at the end of the tourist season, they voted to go on strike. Two weeks later, Unite Here Local 5 workers joined fellow union members from across the country striking at Marriott hotels with the nationwide rallying cry: “One job should be enough.”
The Strike Was No Walk in the Park
Unite Here Local 5 union members at the Sheraton Maui have been back to work for two weeks now. While they’ve been collaborating with management for a smooth transition back to their old roles under a new contract, there are still many of us left wondering, how did they get a better contract? As I’ve heard them say, chant, and shout proudly during the 51-day strike, “The people, united, will never be defeated.”
The Economic Policy Institute reports that “By joining together, working people can transform not just their workplaces but sectors and communities.” The workers understood this well, but many in the community did not. From the get go, workers seemed to be swimming against an overwhelming current of negative reception. Debates ensued on social media and the negative comments blamed workers.
“If they don’t like what they’re getting paid then move!” Evie Chargualaf, a guest service agent with almost 40 years of service at the Sheraton Maui, recalled some saying.
“This is our home. Why should we have to move?” she told me. “The cost of living and the manini pay – Hawai’i needs to do something about this. That’s what we were fighting for. This wasn’t just a fight for us. It was a fight for all locals.”
Similarly, when others would ask Virgil Seatriz Jr., a 12-year Bell Department employee, why he was investing so much into this, he said “I tell them this is bigger than me.”
I met Virgil years ago at one of the Bell Department social functions. Evie was someone I’d only heard of when my husband spoke about union matters. Both natural leaders, they shined in leadership roles during the strike. My husband and I, and many other workers, leaned on their strength throughout the 51 days.
We built friendships with each other, and with everyone on the picket line. But some workers quickly found themselves conflicted, because managers were friends they made over years working side by side.
“The hotel is like a second family to us,” said Virgil. Friends who were invited to family birthday parties, weddings, and fantasy football leagues found themselves on opposite sides. “We even thought of some people in there too while we were outside,” explained Evie. “It wasn’t a personal vendetta to management.”
For workers and family members, it was scary to not know when the next paycheck was coming, especially with the holidays fast approaching. When I asked what was most difficult, Evie was quick to reply, “It was learning and feeling all my coworkers’ struggles. And that every person there had their own story with what was going on with them, their finances.”
She said that as a union leader, “The hardest thing was knowing that people were struggling, you had to think of ways to lift people up.”
Then there were the strikebreakers from the community called upon to fill the void in services. They were working people like the strikers, trying to keep afloat. Many worked for temp agencies and some were even family members. “There are broken families because of this. I know people not speaking to their families,” Evie told me.
Some workers have family members on the mainland who are also Marriott associates. When Marriott offered those associates the opportunity to come home as part of a relief team, workers had to talk family members down from crossing the picket line. It caused a rift in my own family too. There was a time when my sister, a banquets manager at the San Diego property on strike, felt it was better not to speak with any of us.
Of course, the strike also disgruntled many guests. The combination of limited room service and food options, and not having been informed of the strike upset visitors and sometimes resulted in threats of physical violence. Directing their frustration at the workers, many tried to ram the picket line. “One of them almost hit me,” Virgil told me, recounting the close calls he had as a strike marshal. I had to jump out of the way myself to avoid angry drivers.
Celebrities were among those that joined the list of strike breakers. It was a blow for strikers to learn that people they admired like Shane Victorino, Common, and the Yankees crossed picket lines at other properties. From different walks of life, it seemed many people didn’t understand the strike or the struggles of hotel workers on Maui. I asked Virgil why he thought that was.
“A majority of them are non-union people or can’t grasp the concept of what the union stands for and fights for,” he answered. Indeed, my own college students needed convincing that going on strike is legal. And as an educator, it felt like a sucker punch when the UH Maui College Culinary Program didn’t relocate their annual fundraiser and instead crossed the picket line.
So, How Did the Union Win?
For starters, they were being watched, and they knew it. The union fought a very public strike with eyes watching them from all over the nation.
“Everyone was watching,” Virgil told me. “I had to keep cool. I had to keep my composure and not break down.”
“What we showed in the strike line directly affected the negotiations,” Evie explained. Even our own young were watching. There were workers that brought their children to the picket line and eventually, those children took up the bullhorns to lead chants.
They also got outside help to pressure the Marriott and Kyo-ya. “We realized we were brothers and sisters of another union” recalled Evie. Fellow Local 5 members and other unionized workers came down to lend support. Other unions withdrew their business from the hotel. Union members and guests alike donated food, money, and even walked the picket line. Guests checked out in support of the workers and the mounting negative TripAdvisor reviews also helped apply pressure for negotiations.
Some supportive guests were regulars that workers befriended over the years. One night, a bellman left the picket line early to join their return guests for dinner. Another day, a housekeeper was greeted at the picket line by their return guests who wanted to make sure she was doing OK. The workers provided quality service and devotion over the years, and management and return guests knew that.
When I asked what else went into winning, Evie said “It’s leaders. Leaders are who helped us win. We had great leaders. We were taught well.” Indeed, union leaders were the ones who introduced the structure of the strike, and trained other leaders like Virgil and Evie to help build others like them that would rise to the task.
“A lot of it came from every person digging into themselves for what they could show,” she continued. “When you see people inside or outside – you remember the things that each individual did to make an impact and play a part.”
Being persistent and noisy was another factor. Picketers chanted and found creative ways to make noise, leading eventually to a drumline of pots, pans, buckets, and fishing bells. “The noise was motivating. You had to make noise,” Evie added. “We were saying, ‘This is our voice. Here we are.’”
And they were there to win, unwavering in their beliefs. In fact, they wholeheartedly believed they would win. It was just a matter of when. “We had to show our strength in numbers and in quality,” Evie explained, describing what she saw on the picket line. “People’s faces, what their emotions were showing through their faces, was a kind of brokenness but a lot of strength. You know, you’re not gonna beat me down. You’re not gonna beat us down. We will win. We started this and we’re gonna go to the end.”
And when doubt did start to creep in, there was someone there to pick them up. They had each other. “You can see them in a different light now,” explained Virgil. “They’re there for you, they’re there to pick you up. Like ‘ohana – how ‘ohana should be.” Negotiations came and went, and the days went by, but they weren’t intolerable.
To most, the picket line was actually kind of fun. Evie recalls, “It was huge to urge people to go on or try to get them to have fun at the same time because if you’re not having fun and laughing, it becomes depressing in some ways and it becomes a harder fight.” On any given day, walking the picket line meant dancing, singing, and joking together. One of the workers even brought their DJ system.
And another factor that will never be overrated: At the picket line, there was always food. It didn’t take long for everyone to start bringing in pans of food. Cooks for guests were now cooking for the picket line. There would occasionally be an industrial-sized pot of soup for the night shift. My husband even came to perfect his pad thai recipe and after a certain point, my mother was making halo-halo regularly. Nobody went hungry at the picket line.
Lastly, the workers knew that they were part of something bigger. “We were smart to negotiate to end our contracts at the same time,” Evie explained. “Just knowing, there was a whole bunch of us. Hotels across the country were fighting the same fight, holding the same signs and wearing the same t-shirts… The whole movement was huge.”
51 Days Stronger
The 51-day strike was historic. It surpassed the 22-day strike in 1990 and it was the longest strike in Hawai‘i since ILWU’s 1970 strike that lasted 75 days. But more importantly, it was a part of what news sources are calling “the largest multi-city hotel industry strike ever.” Local 5 members at the Sheraton were part of a movement that included 23 different hotels on strike.
Local 5’s historic win included an over $6 increase in hourly pay, benefits, and the development of a child and elderly care fund. And at a time when workers are becoming replaced with technology and automation, members fought hard to win a seat at the table and have a say in the deployment of technology. They fought and won for the reduction of subcontracting of positions and for the reduction of housekeeping workloads. Women and nursing mothers won the promise of a safer workplace.
Workers also move on from the strike with something bigger. “The reality is now having gone on strike, everybody knows where our benefits come from, why we have such a good contract,” Evie shared. “People are more educated and more knowledgeable about what our union is and what unions are in general.”
“Before, we would just show up to work, swipe in, swipe out, either nod or say hello to other departments. Now, we almost know each other by name, no matter which department you worked at,” Virgil explained. “There’s a sense of ‘ohana now where you consider your coworkers your brothers and sisters.” He added, “Before the strike, I think we would just let things go with the flow and voice our opinions individually than as a whole. As a whole we can now voice what’s right or wrong, not individually.”
When I asked Evie about the transition phase, she said, “We’re taking what we learned inside now.”
And when I asked if the union had any role in the community, she responded, “We were fighting [to] make a statement that things in Hawai‘i need to change. Employers need to take care of their workers and the minimum wage needs to go up.” I asked the same question to Virgil, and if he thought that workers should take action on current Maui issues. He was quick to reply, “Yes, because it’s a similar fight.”
The People, United, Will Never Be Defeated
When the US Supreme Court ruled on Janus this summer, public sector workers across the nation were given the freedom to discontinue paying union dues and withdraw from their unions. There was fear that public sector workers, who make up nearly half of the nation’s unionized workers, would leave their unions in droves.
But according to Gallup, union approval ratings have actually been on the rise. Six out of 10 Americans approve of unions – the highest it’s been in 15 years. From that same study, four out of 10 Americans want union influence to increase while another 26 percent are alright with unions keeping the same amount of political influence. In Hawai‘i, the Star Advertiser reported that Janus has not significantly affected Hawai‘i public sector unions. Union membership and accounts seem unaffected.
This seems to counter the popular misconception that unions are no longer relevant. Hawai‘i remains the second most unionized state in the nation. One of every five of us belong to a labor union.
In the last months, Local 5 courageously walked out of their jobs for 51 days to make a resounding statement that one job should be enough – and that they shall not be moved.
In a Star Advertiser column last week, Gary Hooser challenged readers to rise up and join the “gutsy” hotel workers in the heroic fight to improve lives for all working people in Hawai‘i. Are we now in a time where conditions are ripe to fight for what’s right, and for one job to be enough?
And if it is, will you join?
Last night, I asked my mother, “Mom, how come we won?” Without hesitation she replied, “Because we need to.”
Photos courtesy Unite Here Local 5
Cover design by Darris Hurst