Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
In Marriott hotels across the country, employees are striking for better wages and benefits—but also for the right to decide how technology is used in their industry.
To check into the Marriott-owned W Hotel in San Francisco, guests were ducking behind a picket line of angry workers. “No contract, no peace!” the striking hotel employees chanted. Down the block, at the Marriott Marquis, there was another circle of picketers. Big bold font on their signs read: “One job should be enough.”
More than 7,000 employees of Marriott International-owned hotels across eight U.S. cities have walked out of about 40 hotels this month, in a nationwide strike that started in Boston on October 3 and has since spread all the way to Honolulu. The tagline that unifies them—“one job should be enough”—speaks to the wide scope of their goal.
Represented by the labor union Unite Here, Marriott hotel workers are trying to negotiate benefits and wages that are high enough for one worker to support a family, without having to supplement income by working multiple jobs. But to ensure long-term job security, they’re also asking for a voice in deciding when and how hotels use new technology.
It’s no secret that the internet has already affected the hospitality industry as a whole, with online, short-term rental platforms eating into the vacation business hotels once monopolized. But inside individual hotels, too, jobs are being lost to automation. Room service is being replaced by Grubhub and Postmates; dishwashing outsourced to machines; and check-in done via app.
“Some of the technologies could really hurt workers,” said Rachel Gumpert, Unite Here’s national press secretary. “Ones that could reduce hours, or in some cases actually eliminate whole positions while also reducing the guest experience.”
Just as automation transformed (and shrunk) the manufacturing industry, each technological addition hotels introduce could translate into employment opportunities lost. “Most of us have two jobs, or three jobs,” Danny, who has worked in the banquet department of the W Hotel for ten years, tells me while taking a coffee break from picketing. “Some people make $11 an hour. They’re on-call; or given three-hour shifts.” His hotel is installing more robotic equipment, he says, which stacks plates so fewer kitchen staffers are needed.
Allowing guests to use an outside app for food delivery—a growing problem in tech-savvy San Francisco, especially—has ripple effects along the supply chain, says Gumpert. “For a hotel that does all the in-room dining, not only does it impact those workers (who are laid off or have their jobs eliminated from the kitchen), and the people responsible for picking the food up,” she said. “But then when Postmates arrives, [the delivery people] actually cross into the hotel, go up into the elevator, and are walking around on the floors, and no one knows where they are. That’s a huge safety issue.”
Union members are also concerned by the advent of iPads and mobile check-in devices, Gumpert says. Boram Shin has worked at the front desk of the Marriott-owned Sheraton hotel in Waikiki, Hawaii, for a little over a year. Recently, she said, her bosses started training staff to use a cell phone-powered check-in system called “Mobile Key.” “They’re beginning to plant the idea,” Shin told me. “It’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen; it’s a matter of when.”
Hotel workers aren’t anti-technology, says Gumpert. But the union wants workers to have veto power on what’s introduced; at least 180 days notice before it’s implemented; and to be equipped with the training to incorporate technology into their daily lives, not just compete with it. “The workers are the ones in the field, doing the jobs,” said Shin. “They know what’s needed and know maybe what doesn’t need to be there.”
There are specific technological overhauls that could actually make jobs safer and better, says Gumpert. Take preventing harassment, for example. Unite Here led the push this year for hotels to install “panic buttons” in hotel rooms, a device that offers housekeeping staff a way to report sexual harassment, and reduce incidents. In September, Marriott hotels joined 18,000 hotels worldwide in committing to install the electronic devices.
While Marriott has taken stronger action on panic buttons than other hotel companies, (some of which have started giving out lower-tech, glorified “rape whistles,” Gumpert says), simply installing them isn’t enough. “Safety buttons are completely useless if they’re not Wifi and GPS enabled,” she said. Some hotel rooms are two towers away from routers, making signals too weak to sound an alarm. “We’re really going to bat in these hotels, and making sure they spend money on their digital infrastructure so they can have real-time signals, even deep in guest rooms.”
Housekeepers might also welcome a motorized boost to their cleaning carts. Some work 18-hour shifts and walk seven miles a day, says Gumpert, pushing 400-pound metal carts back and forth across hotel floors as long as city blocks. Partly because of these kinds of psychological and physical stressors, hotel workers in the United States are 40 percent more likely to be injured on the job as other service-industry workers. They had “the highest rate of musculoskeletal disorders among all job titles studied, and ranked first (along with cooks and kitchen workers) for the highest rates of injury due to acute trauma,” one study of OSHA log incidents found. An electric solution could ease some of the stress.
It’s been over two weeks since the first employees walked out, and negotiations with Marriott leadership seem no closer to resolving. The brand owns 5,000 hotels across the U.S. and Canada, and in August reported earning $610 million. “We think the largest, most profitable hotel company in the world can afford it,” D. Taylor, the international president of Unite Here, told the Portland Press Herald. “We are disappointed that Unite Here has chosen to resort to a strike at this time,” a Marriott spokesperson told CityLab in an email. “We continue to bargain in good faith for a fair contract.” They did not comment specifically on the automation question.
“We’re not trying to litigate which jobs can have specific technologies,” Gumpert says. “But we’re trying to get hospitality workers a seat at the table.”