Washington State today is ground zero in the effort to hold back the massive use of agricultural guest workers by U.S. growers, and to ensure that farmworkers, both those living here and those coming under the H-2A visa program, have their rights respected. For a second year, on August 4 workers and their supporters marched 14 miles in 90-degree heat through berry fields just below the Canadian border, protesting what they charge is widespread abuse of agricultural labor.
“Farmworker families have been living and working in local fields since the early 1950s,” according to Rosalinda Guillen, director of Community to Community, a farm worker organizing and advocacy group in Whatcom County. “But we’ve seen a big increase in growers’ use of the H-2A guest worker program in the last few years, and it’s had a huge impact on working conditions in the fields. We’ve had to feed guest workers who come to us hungry, fight to get them paid their wages, and help them deal with extreme work requirements. At the same time, our local workers find they’re not being hired for jobs they’ve done for many seasons.”
ICE has facilities in hundreds of county jails around the U.S., building a dependency among counties on money paid for housing detainees.
Bay Area immigrant communities and immigrant rights activists felt they’d won an important victory July 10. At a news conference, Sheriff David Livingston, flanked by the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, announced that his department was ending its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold immigration detainees in Richmond at the West County Detention Facility, one of the county’s four jails.
Immediately, the organizations that had put pressure for years on the county over its cooperation with ICE demanded the release of the detainees, urging authorities not to transfer them to another location. For the next two months, until the immigrant facility inside the jail was closed, detainees’ families and their supporters mobilized to get legal help, and raise the bond money needed to bail people out of detention. In the end, they raised tens of thousands of dollars, and freed 21 of about 175 detainees held inside the center. The rest were transferred.
A final vigil held September 1, after the ICE facility closed, was a bittersweet moment. For seven years, monthly vigils had been held under the portico next to the center’s doors. After the sheriff was forced to abandon the ICE contract, however, activists and families were forced to gather next to a new chain-link fence, in the traffic lane of the highway outside the detention center’s parking lot.
On June 27 thousands of union and non-union Marriott workers organized demonstrations in San Francisco, Oakland, Honolulu, Boston, San Diego, Seattle, Philadelphia and San Jose. Workers carried signs saying, “One Job Should Be Enough!” About 20,000 Marriott workers are represented by Unite Here. As contract negotiations get underway, some 12,000 of those employees have contracts expiring later this year.
Marriott is the largest and richest hotel company on the planet, earning $22.9 billion in 2017. Profits have gone up 279% since the recession, while hotel workers’ annual income only increased 7%.
According to D. Taylor, International President of UNITE HERE, “Too often workers welcome guests to Marriott hotels and deliver an unforgettable experience to them, just to leave their shift and go to a second job because working full time for Marriott isn’t enough to make ends meet.”
Marriott became the biggest global hotel chain when it acquired Starwood for $13.6 billion in 2016. The company’s 30 brands include Ritz-Carlton, Westin and Sheraton, accounting for more than 1.2 million rooms in over 6500 hotels in 127 countries and territories. It opens a new hotel every 18 hours.
Technology is transforming hotel work, with self-check-in kiosks, robot room-service delivery, and mechanical bartenders. In negotiations, workers want guarantees that jobs will not only pay enouogh to live on, but will last during this period of change.
Meanwhile, hotel work is not just underpaid, but is dangerous. In Chicago the union found roughly half of hotel housekeepers had been the victims of sexual misconduct from guests. One man assaulted housekeepers in DC eight times over eight years. A Florida Marriott worker was assaulted in a hotel bathroom. In San Francisco a man committed suicide after attacking and critically injuring a housekeeper.
In negotiations Unite Here is not only demanding increases in wages and benefits, but greater protections, including panic buttons. This year the Chicago union won them for workers with a campaign, Hands Off, Pants On.