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Unite Here! demo bodes tense contract negotiations

Workers and B.C. unions of all stripes gathered at Hyatt Regency hotel in Vancouver yesterday to support Hyatt employees protesting for better treatment and pay.

Organized by Unite Here! Local 40, close to 600 employees and supporters overtook the block between Dunsmuir and Georgia on Burrard Street in Vancouver.

The demonstration was part of a historical North American-wide action to bring attention to employment standards at 15 Hyatt hotels from Toronto to Honolulu, according to Unite Here! Local 40 spokesperson Michelle Travis.

Hyatt made $900 million in 2009 when they took the company public, but they have cut staff and hours and brought greater workloads to employees, many of whom are immigrant women trying to survive, according to Travis.

“It’s a particularly disgusting way to treat housekeepers who have given years of service to the company,” said Travis.

Hyatt employee contracts brokered by Unite Here! expired on June 30. The union is negotiating with the Greater Vancouver Hotel Employers Association.

Megaphone calls like “are you ready for a fight?” were met with joyous approval from the crowd, indicating that bargaining may be tense in days to come.

“In terms of what’s going on here and other cities, we’re seeing Hyatt being particularly aggressive in negotiations, wanting to lock in recessionary contracts,” said Travis. "Meanwhile, the company is doing well.”

Negotiations have been professional and claims of recessionary contracts are evidence that union reps don’t know what’s going on, according to Eric Harris, chief negotiator for the Greater Vancouver Hotel Employers Association.

“This rally…. in our view, has no relationship to our collective bargaining that [is] taking place right now. The union hasn’t tabled their proposals yet, nor have they responded to ours,” Harris told the Tyee over the phone.

A circle of marchers shouting slogans on the sidewalk in front of the hotel gradually expanded up to the intersection of Georgia and Burrard, diverting a stream of rush hour commuters from all walks of life and industry onto the street.

Some were visibly angry over the demonstration, while others gave their approval.

“It’s great,” said Paul, a construction worker watching the events from Burrard Skytrain station. “Who wants to put up with shitty pay and greed?”

By 5:30 p.m., the marching circle had expanded out onto the street to occupy nearly the entire block in front of the Hyatt.

Diners at the Mosaic Bar and Grill above the main lobby of the Hyatt sat contentedly when demonstrators convened on the front steps to listen to testaments from workers, NDP MLA Mable Elmore and a Unite Here! organizer from Seattle.

Organizer Melisa Bayon took a break from chanting through her megaphone to stop and listen. At one point, Bayon had tears streaming from her eyes.

It was an emotional day, she explained.

She was overcome by seeing oppressed workers empower themselves.

“It’s the most courageous thing workers can do,” said Bayon.

Police presence was minimal and civil disobedience was moderate at this demonstration, however, more than 150 protesters at a likewise Unite Here! Hyatt demonstration in San Francisco were arrested yesterday according an Associated Press report.

Justin Langille reports on the landscape of work for The Tyee.

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