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While Michigan workers gained attention by protesting their state legislature’s right-to-work law this week, in Illinois, Hyatt Hotels and Resorts housekeepers are aiming for a largely untested (at least in the United States) strategy for influencing their employer’s decisionmaking: the Hyatt workers are trying to persuade Hyatt’s board of directors to add one of their employee housekeepers to its corporate board.
On Tuesday in Chicago, 200 Hyatt housekeepers and other workers demonstrated outside Hyatt headquarters as part of their “Hyatt Hurts” campaign and presented a resolution to Hyatt leadership requesting worker representation on Hyatt’s board.
As members of UNITE HERE, a union representing workers from the fast food, hotel, gaming, textile, and several other industries, the Hyatt workers have alleged that Hyatt holds them responsible for unreasonable amounts of work, including cleaning up to thirty rooms per day. In alignment with these claims, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued Hyatt an ergonomic risk warning on April 25, 2012. In its warning letter, OSHA pointed out that Hyatt requires of its housekeepers “repeated heavy lifting, bending, twisting, elevated and extended reaches, and forceful gripping.”
To help address these issues, the protesters seek to pressure Hyatt into reforming its board by including a worker. They presented the idea to Farley Kern, Hyatt’s Vice President of Communications, on Tuesday, and are waiting for feedback about their proposal. Ms. Kern told RH Reality Check Thursday morning that she did deliver the communication that was given to her on Tuesday to Hyatt’s Corporate Secretary, but that the workers’ resolution did not follow the process outlined in Hyatt’s bylaws, found here.
How much traction will this request to the Hyatt Board of Directors realistically receive? Unsurprisingly, board seats on major corporations like Hyatt’s are typically held by key shareholders with extensive corporate pedigree. Hyatt’s current board consists of corporate leaders including business leader and philanthropist Penny Pritzker (Pritzker also served as the National Finance Chair of President Obama’s 2008 campaign), as well as Goldman Sachs partner Richard A. Friedman.
The practice of workers joining a company’s board or engaging in other power-sharing models, also known as co-determination, has been found in the European Union, Germany, and the United Kingdom, but is largely untested in the United States. Some scholars who have examined co-determination practices have found the effectiveness of employees serving on corporate boards in actually influencing corporate practices hinges on how dense the labor movement in a given country is to start.
King’s College lecturer Gregory Jackson points out that in Germany for example, where co-determination practices tend to be very strong, labor is found to be a stronger presence in the country overall. In addition, countries with a shareholder-oriented corporate governance like the United States and the United Kingdom, board-level employee representation has been weak.
Despite the uphill battle, the Hyatt Hurts campaign has elected to pursue this strategy and hopes to make it stick. Cathy Youngblood is a lead organizer speaking with Hyatt management to add a worker to the Hyatt board, and she has worked as a housekeeper much of her career. She traveled from Los Angeles to Chicago on Tuesday to present the resolution to Hyatt management, but she had no success actually connecting with the management team and instead spoke only with Ms. Kern—outside of the lobby of Hyatt headquarters.
“Hyatt said door is always open, but I couldn’t even get through the front door when I went to present this resolution,” Youngblood told me on Thursday. “They say I’m a valuable employee, so let me what through the door and let me sit down and talk to you.”
Housekeeping—a job predominantly held by women—can cause a good deal of physical pain due the repetitive nature of the work and the volume of rooms housekeepers are expected to clean per day, as Hyatt housekeepers have attested.
“Every day, you get bruises. Every day, your muscles are sore. It’s so physically overwhelmingly that when you go home, you can’t do anything except take a shower and go to bed,” Youngblood said. “You have to go so fast to make your room count. All with a smile on your face. And if I’m giving my all to Hyatt, why aren’t they listening closely to how to improve the working conditions?”
Hyatt housekeepers also feel they are being short-changed by the corporation as it seeks to hire more part-time workers.
Annemarie Strassel, Communications Coordinator of UNITE HERE, spoke to RH Reality Check via phone on Tuesday night from the Chicago protest about why Youngblood can improve workers’ representation through serving on Hyatt’s board. “Cathy Youngblood is a housekeeper and she’s been on front lines of fight for long time fighting for health and safety of her and her colleagues’ jobs,” Strassel told me. “She has lobbied for legislation and OSHA regs to make it safer. She is an example of someone who can add insight and wisdom and experience to Hyatt’s board.”