Source: UNITE HERE Local 40/Facebook

Workers with UNITE HERE Local 40 marked one year of being locked out from the Metrotown Hilton on Apr. 14 2022, making it the longest hotel lockout in B.C. history. Locked out workers include room attendants, front desk agents, laundry attendants, kitchen staff and other hourly workers. These are difficult jobs often including long days and tough conditions, and the industry is rife with harassment and low pay. Most workers are women of colour, and many have been at Metrotown since it first opened 22 years ago. They’ve raised families and have retirement hopes based on the unionized positions they’ve worked hard in for years. Now, the company is using the pandemic as an excuse to kick them to the curb and replace them with new, low paid, precarious workers.

This is a pattern that has been repeated throughout the hotel industry in the U.S. and in Canada. The Pacific Gateway Hotel in Richmond, another hotel organized by UNITE HERE Local 40, reached one year of striking in May 2022. At the height of the pandemic, 98 per cent of UNITE HERE’s members were out of work. Up to 500,000 hotel workers in the US found themselves in the same position. 

The world’s largest hotels haven’t let the global pandemic go to waste. Many are purposefully not rehiring their long-time unionized staff. They’ve cut daily room cleanings, shrunk their workforce, and have made huge profits in the process. In April 2020, Marriott, the biggest hotel chain in the world, paid $160 million in quarterly dividends, and made $38 million in profits in the fourth quarter of 2021. Hilton Hotels’ stock is the highest it’s been since even before the pandemic. The Hilton Metrotown (which is franchised from Hilton Hotels) and its parent holding company, DSDL Canada Investments, received federal funding through the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program which subsidizes 75 per cent of workers’ wages, which didn’t stop them from locking out workers anyway. 

Workers at the Hilton Metrotown had been without a contract for months before the pandemic, and the lockdown meant reduced hours and layoffs for most of them. By February 2021, mass firing of workers had begun. Come April, 97 workers were gone. The remaining skeleton crew launched a one day strike to protest the firings. The next day, they were locked out by the Hilton and they’ve been on the line ever since. 

Despite all this, the company says that workers are not locked out. A banner above the doors of the hotel reads “Hilton Metrotown offered binding arbitration to end the strike. We want our employees back!” The company maintains workers can come back to their jobs anytime they wish. But this is only if they accept minimum wage and the loss of paid time off, pensions, and benefits. This is an impossible decision in a city where the cost of living is rising astronomically and workers have been without work for over a year. A massive drop in living standards contingent on getting your job back is nothing but a lockout in other words. 

Most importantly, binding arbitration is in no way a solution for these workers. Binding arbitration means that bargaining is taken out of the hands of working people and disputes are left to an “impartial” arbiter to decide the terms of agreement, which are then legally binding. When asked about the prospect of binding arbitration, a locked out housekeeper named Jackie told Fightback, “why would I put my entire life in the hands of someone who has never been in my shoes? Who’s never worked a day of their life in my position? This is just giving up. If I wanted to give up, I’d give up a year ago, not now.” This is exactly what binding arbitration means. Time and time again this road has shown to overwhelmingly favour the bosses. The resort to binding arbitration is happening more and more frequently like the recent CP Rail lockout, where the Teamsters union agreed to return to work when posed with back to work legislation. These are the tactics of loss not victory, and to their credit, UNITE HERE Local 40 has not succumbed to this pressure yet. 

How can workers win?

The one year anniversary of the lockout was marked with a rally of over 400 supporters, including various union locals from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) to the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU). All of these workers, whether locked out or not, have lost something in the pandemic, including jobs, wages, or loved ones, while the companies they work for got rich off their backs. Solidarity and united action between these workers is the key to defeating the bosses at the Hilton.

Currently, managers at the Hilton are acting as scabs and doing the jobs of locked-out workers. As the COVID restrictions lift and vacation season creeps up, the perfect time to place more pressure on management is now, and this is where outside unions are key. CUPW postal workers could refuse to deliver mail to the hotel. Electricians and building trades could refuse any and all repairs. Rank and file workers’ energy and creativity should be harnessed into helping these workers in any way they can. The B.C. Federation of Labour (BCFL) has already called a boycott of the hotel, costing the Hilton an estimated $2 million a year, but this has not ended the lockout. With 500,000 members in nearly 50 affiliated unions, the BCFL can mobilize these workers to ramp up solidarity actions.  

UNITE HERE Local 40 has won before, like in the strikes at four downtown Vancouver hotels in 2019 which saw historic wage increases of up to 25 per cent. There’s no reason why they can’t win again, and not only keep what they had, but also make gains and come out better than before the pandemic. The solidarity of the broader labour movement can help workers win here and in the many more struggles to come.

An injury to one is an injury to all!

No to binding arbitration!

Victory to UNITE HERE Local 40!