Striking hotel workers worry about being replaced by robots
BOSTON — Robots delivering room service, check-in kiosks with facial recognition technology and “smart” speakers that serve as an in-room concierge.
The hotel of the not-so-distant future sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel, but it’s drawing real world anxiety for some of the thousands of Marriott workers on strike across the U.S. this month.
“I’m not against technology,” said Juan Eusebio, a 32-year-old doorman at the W Hotel in Boston and a member of the local union’s negotiating team. “I just want any technology that comes in to help us do a better job, not take our jobs away.”
How much input workers have as these and other technologies are introduced is among the core issues for the nearly 8,000 workers who have walked off their jobs at Marriott hotels from Boston to Honolulu since last week, union officials say.
Workers are also seeking changes to housekeeper workloads, particularly as “green” programs allowing guests to opt out of cleaning services become more popular. They’re also pushing for job protections for restaurant and bar staff as more hotels shutter those facilities.
Marriott, the world’s largest hotel operator, declined to comment for this story, but has said it’s “disappointed” workers have decided to strike.
Marriott workers walked out of hotels across Boston last week, followed by workers in other U.S. cities. Some 6,000 workers at 26 hotels in Chicago also went on strike last month, though most have returned to work after reaching new contracts with Marriott and other operators.
The union’s proposals vary between cities, but generally workers are seeking better compensation to keep up with soaring housing and living costs, said D. Taylor, president of Unite Here.
Unions agreed to forgo pay raises during the lean recession years to preserve jobs, but now that the industry is reaping record profits in some cities, they want to share in the windfall, he said.
In August, Marriott reported second quarter profits increased 25 per cent from the previous year to $610 million.
“We think the largest, most profitable hotel company in the world can afford it,” Taylor said. “Our members are working two or three jobs just to make ends meet.”
Marriott’s “Make a Green Choice” program, which is similar to those offered by other hotel companies, allows guests to decline housekeeping services. The union, in a report last month, said the program reduces housekeeper hours and leads to more injuries because rooms take more effort to clean once guests depart.
Marriott said in a 2017 report its environmental and sustainability efforts have, overall, lowered energy use by 13 per cent and water use by nearly eight per cent from 2007 levels.
“This is a labour reduction program masquerading as an environmental program,” said Brian Lang, head of the union’s chapter in Boston, where he says union housekeepers have seen their hours reduced 15-20 per cent.
On the introduction of new technology, workers want at least 180 days notice before any new technology is rolled out. They want members have a chance to be trained on the technology and “fair severance” if they’re ultimately laid off, said Taylor, the national union president.
Casino giants MGM and Caesars in Las Vegas agreed to similar concessions on technology with their unions this year.