Inspired by hotel workers, it's time to fight for a living wage
Originally published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, December 6, 2018
Former State Senator and Kauaʻi County Councilmember
Executive Director of the Pono Hawaiʻi Initiative
Are the rest of us as committed as hotel housekeepers to raising up Hawaii?
Can we as a community accomplish in 60 days what the hotel housekeepers and restaurant workers achieved in 51 days?
The 2,700 UniteHere Local 5 members who just completed a tough 51 day strike, deserve a ticker tape parade through the streets of Waikiki.
They and their families risked public blowback and a hit on their already tenuous personal finances when they made the decision to demand what each and every worker in Hawaii is due: fair wages and improved working conditions. And they stuck to that decision.
As a result of their courage, they won a huge victory, the benefits of which will extend to hotel workers throughout all Hawaii, both unionized and not. Through the bold action and leadership of the rank and file housekeepers and other members of UniteHere Local 5, a new wage and benefit standard has been set. All other hotel employers must now compete to meet that standard.
Truly, all boats will rise because of the actions of the gutsy men and women who walked the line for those long 51 days.
It is of course the power of unity and purpose that allowed this to happen. Any wonder that worker organizations are called unions?
If the wages paid to hotel housekeepers were left to the bosses, it would be set at the lowest amount needed to attract someone to fill the slot. That's the capitalist formula that has led to the desperate straits of so many working families. Companies look for the cheapest labor. The hungrier and the more desperate the circumstances of workers, the lower the bar for wages. Meanwhile, hotel room rates are always set as high as the market will bear.
No hotel owner is going to pay more in wages and benefits than they have to. Without union representation, workers are forced to compete by offering to work for less than the last guy hired. With union representation workers stand united together, fighting always for the best wages, benefits and working conditions for all.
The standard 8 hour day and 40 hour work week did not just suddenly appear. It was the result of labor union negotiations decades ago. The same is true of over-time pay and worker safety requirements. These key elements governing modern worker pay and working conditions now embedded in labor law began many years ago as conditions sought, fought for, and won by labor unions.
UniteHere Local 5 achieved a huge victory for all of Hawaii’s hotel workers. According to media reports, the wages and benefits won by the workers equate to approximately $6.13 per hour spread out over 4 years. They also gained improved working conditions, retroactive pay, and more.
Imagine if every worker now earning a minimum wage of $10.10 per hour was to achieve the same increase over the same period of time. Imagine if this increase was then improved on just a little bit every year to remain slightly ahead of inflation. Slowly but surely, if we had the will, all of Hawaii’s workers would earn a living wage.
One job should be enough. Every person who works 40 hours per week deserves health care, a decent roof over their head, and three meals a day. How could this be too much to ask of any business or of any government leader? And as consumers, how could we not be willing to pay the tiny little bit more in return for granting all workers the dignity of a living wage?
It took the members of UniteHere Local 5, 51 days to improve living conditions for themselves, their families—and by extension—all other hotel workers.
There are 60 days in the upcoming legislative session that begins on January 16th. Are the rest of us willing to make that same commitment to raising up all of Hawaii?