Hotel Online  Special Report

Hotel Labor Union Negotiations -
a Perspective
To Whom Much is Given, Much is Expected


by Joseph M. Gravish, April 2006

The headline reads “Contract Expirations Create Hotel Tension”. The article refers to union labor negotiations as a “thorn (that) has been bothering the (hotel) industry…” The newspaper’s publisher emeritus claims to have been predicting this problem for two years describing the union as “skillfully put(ting) itself in a position to exert pressure for what it is really looking for - greatly increasing the number of unionized hotel workers.” He then proceeds to bash the union for doing so (“… the real issue is not wages and benefits…”).

How sad, that a union skillfully put itself in a position of influence while a 96 year-old hospitality industry organization and its supposed leaders did not. Sounds like whining to me. I can hear the chant now - “Power to the People.”

I’ve got news for you Mr. Publisher Emeritus, the issue continues to be wages and benefits, and it has been around for longer than two years. The real problem is that hospitality organizations and supposed leaders have unskillfully adopted the Richard Nixon response - deny, deny, deny – or at least ignored the need to put this issue on their annual strategic agenda. They’ve failed to realize that good businesses must also be good citizens.  Where is the social conscience among these organizations and supposed leaders? They rely on these same people to get the foxhole level job done and create good-will and revenue while but berating their representatives for taking action to better their constituents quality of life. These 24/7 jobs are repetitious, physically demanding and too often thankless. Hotel brands continually set the customer service bar higher by including more amenities in guest rooms and demanding unexcelled customer service; yet  local property managers still allow maids a mere 30-minutes to clean a guest room.

Mr. Publisher Emeritus let me tell you a little about these people and why they’re not any different than line-level workers in other industries. 

  • Forty-seven percent of hotel workers earned less than the federal poverty level in 2000. What have hospitality organizations and supposed leaders done about it?
  • Estimated turnover rates range as high as 300%. But hospitality organizations and supposed leaders seem to accept it as a normal cost of business.
  • According to the number one reason employees look for new jobs is inadequate compensation. According to a 2004 SHRM and CNN job satisfaction survey benefits and compensation rank one and two in importance according to employees – but three and five according to employers. According to an AHLA 2003 study wages and benefits ranked among the top three motivators for employees. Other surveys have similar findings. What have hospitality organizations and supposed leaders done to address those issues? 
  • In my state maids/housekeepers, restaurant hosts/hostesses, dining room attendants, waiters/waitresses, bartenders and food preparation workers comprise six of the lowest 25 paying occupations.
  • In my metropolitan area the mean hourly wage of maids and housekeepers in 2004 was $8.18 – with many properties paying significantly less. 
  • Seventeen states currently have set minimum wage laws above the mandated federal level. Legislation recently passed by the Michigan Senate would make it the 18th even though the national and state Federations of Independent Businesses oppose it. 
  • At my hotel 86% of the housekeeping staff has been on-the-job less than one year.
I re-read AHLA’s strategic plan. No where does it address improving the image of the industry itself or the qualify-of-life of the people that provide the 24/7 customer service and ensure investor value. I read the Chairman of the Board’s 2006 inaugural address. He appropriately thanks the many people who mentored him and contributed to his success. He rightly commits the AHLA to education, diversity, training and improved customer service. He omits thanking the masses of “ordinary” people who manned the front lines in years past - and do so today – many of whom continue to be compensated at or below poverty level; many who work without any health benefits, paid time off to take care of a sick family member, live without life insurance, are offered no investment opportunities, etc. and have little security to look forward to later life. Hotel brands put smiling faces on their service posters. Sadly, many employees (and their families) are not provided dental insurance coverage to have similar smiles when greeting customers. 

Hotel brands are spending millions of dollars on brand image because it creates both tangible and intangible value. They’re designing “service cultures” which require better apprentice and veteran employee skill sets; and including service tasks in brand audit inspections. But little, if any, money and emphasis is directed to employee (and family) quality of life. As a result few hotel management companies/brands have been recognized on “Best Company to Work For” lists or among Optima Award winners.  How many hotels have set a goal, allocated resources, and developed an action plan to market themselves as the local “employer of choice” in light of the predicted employee gap? Why not?

What we need are real hospitality heroes – leaders who both sound the call to action and walk the talk. Thankfully there are some enlightened voices crying out in the desert - but not nearly enough. And apparently not among some national hospitality organizations, those occupying high-level corporate offices, or in hotel management/ownership groups.

It’s time to take a skillful position to improve the image and reputation of the hospitality industry. I challenge those in positions of responsibility to take concrete steps.

  • Include meaningful social action objectives and strategies in their annual plans.
  • Require specific/fair compensation goals for every hotel worker (for example, pay scales at least equal to the median wage for that metropolitan area, considering inflation, as determined by the US Department of Labor). 
  • Include employee and family quality of life/benefits improvements programs in hotel brand franchise agreements and inspections. 
I’m reminded of the US Marine Corps, an organization focused on developing caring, responsible, accountable leaders - not winning battles. It’s said that if they do the first, the second will follow. 

It’s time hospitality organization leaders take the real lead and develop – and more adequately reward – their most important asset - employees. Why complain about a union wanting to increase its membership when the AHLA’s own strategic plan includes, as one of its three main issues, the need to attract new and retain existing members? Why complain about ant-hill issues when elephants are about to trample the countryside?  Why be out-maneuvered by a union on an issue which could have been addressed and hopefully resolved, as Mr. Publisher Emeritus predicted, at least two years ago? It’s time to act – not dwell on double-speak.


Joseph M. Gravish
St. Louis, Missouri
(work) 636-938-6661 x7709


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