Danny Glover, halfway through a fly-in, fly-out engagement in Toronto, is tired, and he looks it. His speech to 250 assembled community leaders at the Fairmont Royal York December 3 begins with all the zeal of a certain Conservative federal political leader: a dull, monotonous drone.
He's speaking to an assembly of politicians and reps from OPSEU, CUPE 4400, the CLC, OFL and probably many more orgs that I don't pick out, invited by the UNITE HERE union to discuss ways of improving the rights of hotel workers.
But as the Lethal Weapon actor hits his stride, he preaches with the passion of a Southern Baptist, his arms flying and his hands rattling the fragile podium. The son of two union workers, the unshaven UN goodwill ambassador tells his mostly ethnic audience, "Not only do you help to build communities here - you help sustain those communities where you come from. Your remittance to those communities is important for society."
He's talking about people like someone we'll call Fran, a not-quite-5-foot-tall Filipina who lifts mattresses several floors above where Glover is speaking. She shows me a spic-and-span 250-square-foot Fairmont room with two single beds - four pillows each - and a closet and washroom.
Fran's job is to make sure the next occupant of this $349-a-night room doesn't see or feel or smell the shit that the previous one left behind. She's paid $15.05 an hour, less than her counterparts in New York, San Francisco and Vancouver, but she's lucky because her union just secured her a 9 per cent raise over the next three years.
The provision is one that 84 per cent of Royal York union employees agreed to last month; another is that workers are eligible for an employer-subsidized monthly Metropass. And while Fran is still expected to clean 16 rooms every eight-hour shift, at least she can clean 15 if that's all she has time for - and not get into serious trouble.
Amanda Cooper of UNITE HERE, which represents about 75 per cent of T.O.'s unionized hotel workers, says the stress of room attendants can be traced to 1999, when the Starwood-run Westin chain upped its amenities, and the Marriott, Hampton Inn and Radisson followed suit.
"Westin really set the standard with their Heavenly Bed. They are the industry leaders. They ushered in the era of six to eight pillows per bed, the triple sheeting, the heavy duvets, the all-white rooms - the era of luxury."
This means higher room rates, more work, higher costs (and revenues) for the corporations and, of course, no extra pay for the workers.
The problems are different for banquet waiters at the Royal York, but the lack of respect is the same. One I talk to is from India, where he worked at his father's 17 restaurants. He says the union campaign is about raising the standard of living in line with workers in other service sector industries. "We earn our gratuities, we pay taxes," he says, but there are no benefits, minimum unemployment benefits and only a meagre pension plan. "We need to have some improvements."
A few floors below the room Glover is speaking in, my undercover unofficial tour guide tells me she would like to see a more manageable workload for those serving the hotel's 3,000 to 4,000 guests. But workload appears to be the least of the worries for the kitchen's five dessert chefs; they are concerned that if New York billionaire and minority shareholder Carl Icahn is successful in his takeover bid, he will flip the Fairmont chain over to a larger one and the Royal York will be rebuilt.
A UNITE HERE rep assures me that workers can count on the current three-year agreement and that successes can be found elsewhere: an agreement in Washington now stipulates that hotels have to consult with the union before major amenity upgrades are allowed. The challenge, however, is for other hotels to follow suit; the contracts of 4,000 workers at 23 Toronto-area hotels end January 31.
But there are also long-term pressures destined to be challenging to those strategizing for improvements. Hotel workers currently pull in an average of less than $30,000 a year, guaranteeing an enduring low-wage ghetto in tony Toronto. And with the current push for more immigration, the pool of potential workers in this industry is likely to increase radically.
Says U of T industrial relations and human resources prof Anil Verma when I call him later, there is reason for concern. Systemic discrimination already pervades the work world, he says, and if more members of visible minorities are available for hotel employment, the pressures could lead in the wrong direction.
"If they are willing to take these jobs, they may be willing to take them at a lower and lower wage, in which case wages will be depressed." Unions will have their work cut out for them, he says.
Back at the Royal York, Mayor David Miller, who knows how much hotel workers mean to our $4-billion tourism industry, is praising union efforts."Every single Torontonian knows that when a visitor comes to our city, it's the hotel workers and the people in the hospitality industry who welcome them."
Returning from my secret tour, I spy Glover grabbing a sandwich. He brushes me off to talk with someone with a new-Canadian story. A little later, I get the sense that despite the fatigue that betrays him the second I start in with my journo questions, if the crowd were to march on a hotel that very second, he would leap to his feet and follow.
I finish my questions and let him be. I leave him gleaming again as he chats with another hotel worker.