THE BLOG
02/14/2012 04:39 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2012

Why Shouldn't Housekeepers Make $60,000 Per Year?

Last week, union and management in the New York City hotel industry announced a new contract for 30,000 hotel workers in the city, including the headline-making number that housekeepers would be making $60,000 per year at the end of the seven-year contract, an increase of 30 percent over the $46,000 presently paid.

While worker advocates and many in the media applauded the accomplishment -- the Daily News editorial page called it "the kind of labor relations that should be more widespread" -- some conservative outlets bemoaned the result. See this clip from Fox Business News where an analyst calls the result a "nightmare" and how "shocking" it is to give a 30 percent raise to a hotel maid:

Seeing rich business analysts bemoaning workers making probably a fifth to a tenth of the income they take home each year is nauseating, but it's worth asking how we got to the point that it is a bit "shocking" in some sense that workers in what is seen as a low-wage industry are making a living wage?

The disappearance of good working class jobs is the flip side of the anger many feel at income of the richest 1% exploding -- that group had a 275 percent "raise" in income between 1919 and 2007 according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The problem is not that the wealthy are getting wealthier, but that they seem to do so at the expense of everyone else seeing wages drop and benefits like health care and pensions disappear.

Which is what makes the story of $60,000 housekeepers such an anomaly in the news. When Local 6, which represents New York City hotel workers, was founded back in 1938, they were actually just a latecomer to a wave of union drives that raised wages and brought labor rights to the workplace for previously low-wage workers in the auto industry, steel, telephone, garment and range of other industries.

But many of those jobs have disappeared to either globalization or technology and, except for a smaller group of high-paying professional service jobs, the decline of union strength has meant many new service jobs pay less than needed to raise a family.

So why do we have $60,000 per year housekeepers in New York City?

Well, you can't outsource cleaning a room to China and so far no robot can make a bed as well as a human being, so hotel workers have escaped the job destroying forces sweeping other industries.

But you don't have $60,000 housekeepers in most places in the United States or anything approach it except in a handful of cities like San Francisco and Las Vegas, so the answer goes beyond technological determinism.

The answer is hard-fought organizing by the hotel workers themselves in New York City and the supportive pro-union sentiment of other residents in the city, what was once unapologetically called "solidarity" in this country before the term seemed to get reserved by the elite for only talking about supporting workers in Poland.

Robert Kuttner last year told the story in The American Prospect of how Local 6 helped workers at a the Boathouse restaurant in Central Park for a union. The union printed 250,000 maps for tour guides and taxis showing alternative places to eat, asked local officials and others not to host events at the restaurant, and had 4000 union members on picket lines to explain to tourists and residents why to eat somewhere else. People stopped eating at the Boathouse and management agreed to raise line cook wages from $8 per hour to $16 per hour and grill cooks to $20, while dishwashers went from just above minimum wage to $13.50 per hour. And 18 workers who had been illegally fired by management to try to break the union were reinstated with full pay.

The last sentence explains why housekeepers and other hotel and restaurant employees don't do as well in most of the rest of the United States. Workers should be able to demand a living wage from their employers but under the law today, they face almost inevitable threats and illegal firings. In fact, research shows that in a majority of attempts to form a union, employers threaten workers and a third of employers follow through with illegal firings. And it only takes seeing a few colleagues fired to chill most union drives.

What's different in New York City is that 30,000 hotel workers are already organized, which is a deep well of support for other workers trying to stand up for their rights at work. Given the failure of labor law and the courts to protect workers illegal fired, only cities with that kind of density of built-in support have a chance to protect new workers trying to raise living standards for themselves.

So you end up mostly with a few islands of labor strength left in private industry in the United States: airline workers in Seattle, entertainment unions in Los Angeles, autoworkers in the Detroit region, and hotel workers in places like New York and Las Vegas.

But here's the thing -- those pockets of unionized workers with decent wages and a contract that protects them from arbitrary firing? They aren't the unusual ones, at least not in the context of the rest of the developed world. In fact, the U.S. is one of the only countries among our democratic counterparts in places like Europe where workers have to fear such illegal firings on a routine basis.

That's the real problem of rising inequality in our nation.

We can advocate for the federal government to raise taxes on the wealthy and increase spending to help working families. However, no government program is going to help working class families as much as the kind of $14,000 per year raise a strong union like Local 6 in New York can deliver.

It would be nice to change labor law to make that easier, but the corporate right has made it clear that they will fight such reforms tooth and nail. So the next best answer is for progressive activists to make support of those labor struggles a priority.

Occupying Wall Street is a great thing, but we need as well to occupy workplaces across this country, literally. When there was no real labor law in the 1930s, it took illegal sit-down strikes and workplace occupations to reverse the economic inequality of that era. A whole range of tactics are needed now, but success is ultimately dependent on that old word "solidarity" to support those struggles.

And maybe then we'll be able to return to the day when a housekeeper making $60,000 per year will be considered just the normal result of people demanding a fair wage for all workers.