Hawaii may be paradise for people on holiday but for those who live and work here it has long been unaffordable. The money flowing into the islands flows out as fast as it flows in and what stays has never been shared fairly. Hotel companies, like Kyo-ya Hotels and Resorts (a Japanese company) which own many of Hawaii’s hotels, and large mainland based corporations, like Marriott, are profiting from Hawaii’s tourist economy and making their investors (who mostly do not live and work in Hawai’i) rich. Meanwhile, the cost of living in Honolulu is skyrocketing, rents are increasing and real estate prices are exploding upward constantly. Health care and insurance costs are rising quickly and food prices (along with everything else) are more expensive daily. Working people in Hawai’i now must work two or even three jobs to make ends meet. This is not new, but it’s getting worse.
In addition, automated tour desk, front desk check-in kiosks, cellphone enabled room keys, robot room service delivery, and guests opting out of housekeeping (green-washing) are taking away some jobs. Wages have not gone up in Hawai’i for a long time – the cost of living goes up and workers give an increasing share of their wages to the ‘paradise tax’.
Workers are picketing five Marriott hotels in Hawaii: Sheraton Waikiki, Royal Hawaiian, Sheraton Princess Kaiulani, Westin Moana Surfrider and Sheraton Maui. About 95 percent of the 3,500 workers in Local 5 authorized a strike last month. The hotels are working with ‘contingency plans’ but guests at the hotels as well as other visitors in Waikiki are being impacted.
Marriott is the largest and wealthiest hotel company in the world. The company earned $22.9 billion dollars in revenue in 2017 and has a net worth of $46.8 billion dollars, almost twice that of it’s nearest competitor, Hilton. As a giant in the hospitality industry, Marriott has the resources to lead the way in creating good, life-sustaining jobs. Instead, the company has refused to meet the modest demands of its employees, and now these workers are on strike.
Workers want a say in how new technological changes can improve working conditions rather than lead to the elimination of jobs. In addition, they want better pay and benefits which are more in line with the high cost of living in Hawai’i. While wages might seem high to workers in other states, Hawaii’s wages are roughly 10% lower than the national average across a broad spectrum of careers. In addition, Honolulu is among the top five most expensive cities in America. Median price for a 2-bedroom, stand alone home is roughly $1.2 million dollars with 2 BR condos and townhouses at a median of about $800,000. Rents have soared skyward with the advent of AirBNB, vacation rentals, and foreign investment in ‘affordable houseing’. Hawaii has the lowest rate of home ownership in the USA. Tourism workers in Hawai’i often are hired on a part time basis so that company owners do not have to pay healthcare costs.
The strikers in Hawai’i are not alone. This is a national hotel strike taking place from coast to coast in the USA. The strike is growing and the issues the workers are striking about will not be going away.
Nothing will be won through isolated, individual strikes. Hotel workers are forming independent workplace committees to expand the strikes, linking up the struggles of workers in different cities as part of a broader mobilization of the working class. These committees must formulate demands that meet the real needs of workers for livable wages, full healthcare coverage and job protections.
The workers who clean, cook, and serve in Hawaii’s hotels want to be able to survive and live in a state where costs are rising. They want to see their incomes rise, they want have access to year-round health insurance, and they want to retire with dignity rather than in to poverty.
Housekeepers want Marriott to end or change its greenwashing program called Make a Green Choice. This program gives guests incentives to refuse housekeeping – a cynical move to remove housekeepers from the schedule and keep labor costs down. The program leaves many room attendants waiting by the phone at night to see if they have work in the morning.
Finally, Marriott workers want to have a say in how new technologies will change their jobs. With robotics, algorithms, and digital apps flooding the hospitality industry, Hotel workers want job security protections that allow them to be part of the innovation economy rather than victims of it. They want to be able to have a voice in how and where technology is implemented, be retrained for jobs in the digital age, and have severance protections if jobs are eliminated.
Honolulu workers are striking for all tourism workers who believe that one job should be enough. They are demanding that the largest, wealthiest hotel company in the world take responsibility for creating jobs that allow working people to live and survive in our state. In doing so, they are providing an example of how working people, united and with a clear vision, can solve some of the economic problems of our society.
One thing for sure, the Hawaii Convention and Visitors Bureau is nervous as hell – next week 10,000 dentists will descend on Honolulu for their annual convention – and everyone knows you don’t want to piss of a dentist on holiday. Hell hath no fury like a dentist whose vacation was ruined by striking workers. They’ll make the hurricanes and volcanic eruptions look like nothing in comparison.