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Frontline workers at Renaissance Toronto Downtown Hotel have been fighting for union representation for nearly six months. Last Thursday, a successful -- albeit close -- vote result sparked celebrations among workers and UniteHere Local 75 organizers.
Reflecting on the victory, four women from the hotel's housekeeping department shared their stories with rabble.
Amparo Lambino has worked at the Renaissance Hotel for 27 years. Changes in staff, management and hotel ownership have impacted the frontline workers, especially the women in housekeeping, she says.
Since 2000, when current owners Larco Hospitality took over, housekeeping staff have steadily taken on more work, with no extra pay. "In the past, you were paid by the hour. Now, you must have to finish your 15 rooms [before going home]. We work 8am to 4.30pm, but people are working until 7pm, and no [overtime] pay," Lambino says.
Problems with an ongoing shoulder injury also spurred her desire to unionize. "I have a tear and dislocation [on my right shoulder]. The WSIB [Workplace Safety and Insurance Board] told me it's not related to the job, but, of course in 27 years, when you are doing housekeeping, you're body becomes abused."
Sharing her personal experience with co-workers helped increase understanding around why a union was needed. "I talked to my co-workers and told them: 'In four years, I'm retiring. You are going to stay here. If we don't have a union, they will keep pushing us… to do more and more rooms. I feel sorry for you because you have a family and you will get sick. It's happened to me and I have to live with pain. Who is going to help you [because] the company doesn't care.'"
As a hardworking employee of the hotel for more than 15 years, Arlene -- who declined to give her surname -- struggled to understand why she was overlooked for a promotion two years ago. "[The executive housekeeper] trusted me with many important things in our department. I can check rooms, do dispatching, I can do special projects for the hotel -- if there was a photo shoot, she always picked me. I participated in auditing when there…was a quality audit," Arlene says.
When a role as a checker in the department came up, she and two other people applied -- and the position was awarded to the least experienced of the candidates, Arlene says. "I believe it was an unfair hiring practice. If [someone] got the position because they were more senior than me, I can accept that. But the people below my seniority, below our seniority -- it's like a slap on the face," she says.
The experience made Arlene a strong campaigner during the union drive. "Someone asked me if I wanted to meet someone so they can explain [what the union is] and what the benefits are you can get. I liked it and that's why I joined it."
Understanding exactly what was at stake helped those working to organize stay strong, especially when management employed tactics to discourage unionization, and other workers bullied those supportive of the campaign. "Some people work 10 hours, and some people don't take their breaks. Some people eat inside the room -- because you're just a human being and you have to sustain your energy otherwise you'll collapse. I can see a lot of people who are sacrificing too much of their time, which is not fair because they also have family to attend to."
A union will give workers the opportunity to bargain for better conditions and protections, Arlene says.
Luz Flores' family haven't seen a lot of her in the past six months. Determined to win union representation, Flores -- who has seen several other union drives fail in her 17 years at the Renaissance Hotel -- devoted many of her evenings to the campaign. "Everyday, we had a meeting and talked about what to do next," she says.
Her 23-year-old son, who is a unionized worker at Loblaws, understood and supported his mother. "Before, when he came home, I was already sitting down at the computer. But lately, 1 a.m., 2 a.m., still I'm not home. He said: it's about time you had one [union]" Flores says smiling.
Communicating with her friends who worked at other hotels, and were already members of UniteHere Local 75, also helped. "Half of us [workers] are talking secretly and saying -- is this good for us, is this bad for us. We had to find out what is good, and what is bad, so if we join the union, if it's good for us, we go for it," she says.
Having senior workers like Lambino was crucial to the success of this campaign. "Because, they've been here 27 years, they [have] been there long enough to know what's going on [and] they said, enough is enough."
To involve other departments, Flores and a few others from housekeeping approached staff members in different places of the hotel, like the front desk and the restaurant. As the campaign gained momentum, more people became involved, she says. "It's overwhelming and very emotional because we stick together like glue with these girls. The ones [workers] who don't want a union, they're still pounding us," she says.
"Management doesn't want it of course, it's always understandable -- but it's not about them. We did this for our protection, and it's also for our families. If we have a good working place, we are happy, and our families are happy too," Flores says.
Espe Rojas used to love working at the Renaissance Hotel. Previously known as the SkyDome Hotel, Rojas -- originally from Ecuador -- started 26 years ago as a room attendant.
Drawn to its grandness and connecting baseball stadium -- the homeground of the Toronto Bluejays -- cleaning rooms with a view of the field offered something different, she says. "I used to clean suites where I used to see the structure [and the] big field. It's all steel inside the roof and it moves to open. I used to think this is my place for so many years, because I love architecture. I think that kept me for so [many] years cleaning these big rooms, even though you have to rush," Rojas says.
But, in recent years, things haven't been so good. "A year ago…I got sick with my hand. I got tendonitis, I couldn't open my hand and then I had surgery." While Rojas gave up cleaning the large field-view suites for more manageable rooms, problems with overworked staff and low morale brewed. "There was too much favouritism. Most of us are mothers, we have kids, families -- it's not fair that some people have to work two to three hours later to finish the amount of rooms we have. We were [treated] like machines -- all they cared about was the productivity," she says.
And while Rojas is a firm union activist now, she admits being a bit unsure initially. "One time, they came to my place, and I said sorry, I'm not interested. They kept coming, and…I like to talk so they came in."
Last week's successful vote was a huge step towards better working conditions, she says. "A lot of people ask why request a union now after 26 years. [It's] because I'm tired of seeing a lot of things that shouldn't happen, and I don't want to die like this."
Watch Renaissance Hotel workers celebrate winning their union. Won't be a dry eye in the house!
Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She is rabble's labour beat reporter this year.
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