“We never gave up,” said Gemma Dela Torre, a housekeeper at the Hilton Metrotown hotel in South Burnaby. “We stuck together, and we never gave up.”
Dela Torre spoke with Canadian Dimension about the financial and emotional stress she and her colleagues endured when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world into lockdown two years ago. Hilton Metrotown fired 97 employees almost immediately and locked out the remaining workers, who were forced into temporary unemployment. The terminated employees would soon find out they’d have no job to return to after the pandemic subsided and business picked up again.
With their jobs hanging in the balance, Dela Torre and her colleagues took to the picket line to protest. Among their chief complaints was the hotel owner’s abuse of employee recall rights, which protect a worker’s ability to return to their job after an extended absence—like one caused by pandemic lockdowns.
Recall periods are determined through collective bargaining agreements, but for non-unionized workers in BC, the recall window is 13 weeks. BC’s hospitality union, UNITE HERE! Local 40, pushed for provincial laws that would allow workers in industries affected by pandemic layoffs to return to work as business improved, but the province did not agree (although the recall period was extended temporarily).
Dela Torre worked at Hilton Metrotown for seven years. If she lost her seniority and was forced to start from the bottom at another job, she’d be making $16 an hour, likely without a pension and benefits.
“How can you survive on that?” she asked rhetorically.
About 30 hotels in the Lower Mainland have now extended recall rights, but not without a fight from unions and workers. Hospitality staff also won unlimited recall rights to cover future crises, such as pandemics and natural disasters.
“It was crisis management right from the get-go,” explained Stephanie Fung, communications organizer with Local 40. Fung said the reluctance to extend recall rights beyond a year was likely a union-busting tactic to circumvent labour standards and replace long-term employees who fought hard for their wages and pensions with desperate workers willing to log longer hours for lower wages just to make ends meet in a spiraling economy.
Pandemic profiteering persists unchallenged
Housekeepers and food and beverage workers—a sector dominated by women of colour—have experienced increased pressure on the job. Hotels are leveraging COVID as an excuse to limit room cleanings and cut staff, leaving a smaller number of housekeepers to clean dirtier rooms and meet unrealistic quotas. Labour shortage critiques circulated in the media suggest a reluctance to return to work, but these arguments fall short in the face of refusals by employers to rehire staff to pre-pandemic positions.
After participating in the longest hotel strike in BC history, Dela Torre and her colleagues won a fair contract with Hilton Metrotown. All 97 terminated employees were hired back, and housekeepers won daily room cleaning rights. Dela Torre said she and her colleagues are happy to be back at work.
#BREAKING: Hilton Metrotown Workers Win Contract Ending B.C.’s Longest Hotel Lockout— Unite Here Local 40 #BCUnequalWomen (@UniteHere40) May 11, 2022
97 Terminated Staff Win Right to Return to Jobs #bcpoli #cdnpoli #HiltonMetrotown #Burnaby
More details: https://t.co/LAQzWHWeHs pic.twitter.com/yBh2YFHb10
Hotels are particularly difficult to unionize because workers are up against a fragmented industry with hundreds of different owners and operators. For example, Hilton Metrotown’s owner lives in South Korea, presenting added barriers to fair contract negotiation. To secure a better deal, Dela Torre and her colleagues picketed at the South Korean embassy and garnered political support from local Burnaby politicians.
Their success illustrates the power of collective action; yet the struggle continues for hospitality workers fighting for job security in a precarious and exploitative economy.
Picketing efforts at the Pacific Gateway Hotel near the Vancouver airport have been met with apathy and resistance by hotel owner Sukhi Rai. The hotel had just over 200 workers before the pandemic, 150 of whom were terminated in the opening months of the crisis. Most of the fired Pacific Gateway employees were women, some with up to 45 years of service.
In May 2022, Pacific Gateway picketers commemorated one year of being on strike. Richmond City Council offered their support by passing a resolution, signed in June, that denied business to the hotel until management reaches an agreement with Local 40.
“Rain, shine, or snow, we’re here trying to fight,” said Saras Naidu, a housekeeper at Pacific Gateway. “But we didn’t realize it was going to be so long.”
Rai is president of Jayen Properties, a Surrey-based development company that has built and acquired dozens of hotel properties across BC and Alberta under its affiliate PHI Hotel Group. The hotel management company acquired the Pacific Gateway Hotel in the summer of 2019. Two of the hotels owned by Rai, Pacific Gateway and the Western Calgary Airport Hotel, were bankrolled by the federal government as quarantine hotels at the onset of the pandemic. Since then, Rai has picked up a couple of additional properties and plans to start several new development projects. One involves buying and developing the Cobalt Hotel in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, which currently houses individuals at risk for homelessness.
Attempts to reach Rai for comment on this article were never answered.
Waning unions impact us all
Since the fight for a shorter work week in 1872, labour movements across Canada have tipped the scales towards more secure, safe, and financially viable employment. Legislation like the Trade Union Act and policies including vacation and parental leave have strengthened historic gains, setting a precedent for non-unionized employers to pay labour adequately (including paid overtime) and provide health and wellness benefits.
Unions have acted as a counterbalance to the wealth and income inequality that pervades contemporary society. Organized labour has also been successful at offsetting the disproportionate power of capital and redirecting some financial rewards to the labour producing goods and services.
Despite these hard-fought gains, union membership in Canada declined eight percent between 1981 and 2014. Since 2014, total union coverage has remained relatively stable (hovering around 30 percent). But relative stability is insufficient, and the pandemic has reignited rallying cries for collective bargaining power to shield workers from the current inflationary crisis.
The need for sustained, collective action is evident. The majority of workers cannot keep up with the cost of living, while Canada’s highest paid CEOs earned roughly 200 times more than the average worker in both 2019 and 2020. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the country’s 100 highest-paid CEOs were compensated an average of $10.9 million in 2020, a $95,000 increase from 2019. Some of this compensation was likely drawn from funds received through the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). Although designed to provide hiring and wage support for businesses, the subsidy carried on long after individual and self-employed workers’ compensation was cut from the federal pandemic bailout fund.
Time for a policy shift
Some hotel companies are deliberately prolonging contract negotiations, even after unionizing. The Pan Pacific, for example, officially unionized with Local 40 in February 2021 after securing the union vote in August 2020. This hasn’t swayed hotel management, who are seemingly uninterested in reaching an agreement. Despite challenges, picketers continue to show up and hold the ownership accountable for its inaction. The union entered mediation last month.
In April, the BC government introduced a new single-step certification process, a policy designed to enable unionization when a clear majority of employees are in favour of joining. Whether this new policy will be effective has yet to be seen. Regardless, a single union support policy will not be sufficient to address the cumulative pressures faced by employees—and employers who take advantage of difficult circumstances.
To start, we need policies that protect unions and workers’ rights to organize, strong pro-labour laws, proportionate corporate tax hikes, and bylaws to close negotiation loopholes, including fines if an employer fails to negotiate a contract after unionization. But these policies will have to be fought for. Executive bonuses, shareholder profits, and financial earnings are an inadequate snapshot of a company’s value to society, and our municipal, provincial, and federal policies must reflect that reality. Without measures to hold companies accountable, including unions, redistribution will always come at the expense of middle-class and low-wage workers.
Fortunately, there’s been a resurgence of labour organizing in North America. Confronting powerful individuals and corporations with deep pockets, workers are fighting for a decent wage, job security, safe working conditions, and time to spend with their families. We all need to be along for the fight.
Cassandra Jeffery has a graduate degree in public policy and global affairs from the University of British Columbia. She is the recipient of a Simons Award in Nuclear Disarmament and Global Security, and she is currently working as a research assistant to analyze energy policies in North America and Asia.