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Unite's victory for casual workers at Marriott hotels shows the power of collectivism

A group of hospitality workers – many of them never organised before – collectively demanded, and won, the right to be furloughed by their initially reluctant employer. BRYAN SIMPSON explains

ON APRIL 8, Marriott Hotels managers sent a letter to over 1,000 casual workers, stating that they were “yet to determine their position” on whether they could be furloughed, citing “significant cashflow issues” as their justification. 

This was despite government guidelines released almost two weeks previously, on March 26, stating that zero-hours workers were perfectly entitled to be furloughed and paid at least 80 per cent of average annual earnings.

In fact, this was simply a case of a huge multinational doing everything it could to avoid keeping its most precarious workers on the books.

As the world’s biggest and richest hotel group, it was inconceivably unfair for Marriott to discriminate between permanent and casual staff in this way and then to claim that it didn’t have the money to furlough some of their poorest and most precarious workers, particularly when 80 per cent would be covered by the taxpayer.

Our members agreed and they banded together to organise through their trade union, Unite Hospitality, many for the first time, launching a collective campaign to demand 100 per cent wages.

Their campaigning activity included conference calls, online actions and a joint letter to the president of Marriott Europe. 

Our campaign culminated in a call with colleagues in the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations, who had been supporting Marriott workers across the world to challenge the company’s failure to provide PPE in Nairobi, refusal to furlough in San Francisco and unfair dismissals in Mumbai. 

We were about to launch a campaign alongside sister unions, to take Marriott on globally. 

The next day, the company capitulated and agreed to furlough all 5,500 workers regardless of employment status under the job retention scheme. 

They had had a month to do the right thing, but they chose not to and were more than happy to see their casual workforce face destitution. 

It was only after our members collectively demanded furlough that they changed their mind. 

What makes this victory stand out among the many victories our movement has won in the past month is that it was young, precarious workers who led it. 

Take Lance, for example. Lance has only just turned 18 and is still at school. He’s never been in a union before. 

Despite this, he joined and in the space of four days he remotely organised his hotel in Coventry and got colleagues from every department involved.   

Lance said: “When I saw that only contracted workers would be getting paid during the original designation of furloughed workers for the Marriott, I was thrown back a bit. 

“I thought that the Marriott didn’t care about casual workers like me, despite government guidelines allowing all workers to be included. I’d like to thank Unite Hospitality for supporting us with a platform that allowed us to share our voice collectively. 

“I’d also like to thank everyone who got involved in the union as we worked together to beat discriminatory behaviours from the Marriott.”

Emma was another young worker central to the victory: “It was very disappointing to hear that casual workers were being treated differently to the contracted staff, but with the help of Unite Hospitality, Marriott have finally agreed to furlough all casual workers and reinforce their ‘Spirit to Serve’ mission statement. 

“Huge thanks to our union and my colleagues for helping us to achieve this.”

In the space of one week, a group of workers who had never been involved in our movement before, have become entirely convinced of the idea of organising as a collective force for progressive change in their workplace. 

While this is a massive victory for our members at Marriott, our campaign for justice doesn’t stop here. 

We are now calling upon the company to top up the remaining 20 per cent of wages, including Tronc (tips) and ensure full sick-pay for those self-isolating. 

What the Marriott victory shows us is not just the untapped power of precarious workers but just how integral service-sector workers have been during this crisis. 

The lowest-paid and most contractually insecure workers who had previously been labelled “unskilled” are now the undisputable backbone of an economy otherwise paralysed by this pandemic. 

As a movement, we owe it to these workers to ensure that this is not forgotten by employers and government alike. 

We must throw our full weight and organising might behind winning a new deal alongside these workers — no more poverty pay, no more zero hours. 

Our members at Marriott have proven that they’re up for the fight. 

Bryan Simpson is an industrial organiser for Unite Hospitality — the union for bar, restaurant, cafe, hotel and casino workers. From Premier Inn to the Compass Group, they have led the way through the coronavirus crisis in pushing hospitality employers to reinstate thousands staff and get them 80 per cent wages, 20 per cent top-up as well as full sick-pay for workers self-isolating.

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