Thanksgiving on the picket line

Hotel workers remain out for the holiday, strike continues

Sally Laolao (foreground) leads a group of workers along the picket line to the beat of her coffee-can drum. About 50 workers were marching in front of the Sheraton as part of an ongoing strike that began Oct. 8 at five hotels statewide. Earlier this week, hotel owner Kyo-ya announced that UNITE HERE Local 5 had rejected its latest offer. The two sides will meet again on Monday. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

KAANAPALI — Glean Ruidas will spend an unusual Thanksgiving marching the picket line in front of the Sheraton Maui Resort and Spa, but the longtime bartender is looking forward to it.

“We’re willing to spend our Thanksgiving out here,” Ruidas said. “We’re family now.”

Despite the drawn-out contract negotiations and the potential to spend the holidays on strike, workers were unfazed on Tuesday and even looked forward to Thanksgiving. Since Oct. 8, some 2,700 workers with UNITE HERE Local 5 have been picketing at five Hawaii hotels operated by Marriott and owned by Kyo-ya Hotels and Resorts. On Monday, Kyo-ya announced that Local 5 leadership had rejected the company’s latest offer and that the two sides would not meet again for another week.

“The company’s just testing to see whether or not we’re going to be able to get through the holiday, and of course we will,” Local 5 organizer Cade Watanabe said Tuesday outside the Sheraton.

“The interesting thing about it is we work in the service industry, so we work all the holidays. So our members are looking forward to Thanksgiving this year because it’s the one few times where everybody is going to be able to spend it with their family and their union family.”

Striking workers don’t get a regular paycheck, but Watanabe said the union has been preparing them for a contract dispute for the past two years. The union offers financial counseling, loans and “hardship programs” through the hotel industry credit union. The union also has a strike fund to compensate members for basic necessities.

Other unions have been supportive too, like the United Food and Commercial Workers union that gifted every union member with free turkeys. Workers planned to hold a potluck outside the Sheraton on Thanksgiving and even wanted to do karaoke.

When asked whether it was hard to be on strike during the holidays, Ruidas shrugged.

“I’m just here. We’re here,” said Ruidas, a father of three. “We’re going to spend our holidays here anyway. We’re going to finish the fight no matter what.”

Imelda Casio, who’s been a housekeeper at the Sheraton for 31 years, said she doesn’t mind being on strike on Thanksgiving “because now we can have fun with our family here.”

“We get to know each other, especially from the other departments,” she said. “Before we just see each other, we didn’t even say Hi. But now it’s, they love us and we love them.”

Casio said she’s always been a saver, so the strike hasn’t been particularly hard financially. Grocery gift cards from the union have also helped.

“You know us Filipinos, yeah, we can live with bagoong, vegetables in our backyard,” she said. “Not a lot, but at least something to use when we have hard times.”

Casio’s husband is a landscaper at the Hyatt Regency, and they were able to send their two daughters to college on the salaries and the help of Casio’s two sisters, who lived with them for a time and paid rent. She said while her salary has been enough for family, she hopes for better benefits because the cost of living continues to rise, and some of her co-workers still have young children and mortgages to pay.

Watanabe said guests have been supportive, bringing by water, fresh-baked goods and monetary donations.

Contract talks continue

Local 5 and Kyo-ya are scheduled to meet again on Monday.

Kyo-ya said in a statement that it was “extremely disappointed that Local 5 leadership rejected our latest offer, which would have been the largest increase in compensation for any of the striking markets nationwide.

“Instead of accepting what would have been a fair and generous agreement, Local 5 leadership has elected to keep our employees out of work,” Kyo-ya said.

The company said its latest offer included an increase in combined wages and benefits “for an amount that is higher than what was agreed to in any of the markets on the Mainland that were on strike and have settled, including Boston, San Diego, San Jose, Chicago and Oakland.” It also proposed no changes to benefits for active and retired employees, and a reduction in workload for housekeepers.

“Kyo-ya has always had a strong and long-standing commitment to our employees and has taken great measures to treat them fairly in terms of annual wages and benefits,” the company said.

Watanabe said Kyo-ya is “trying to play this PR game,” and that it was the company’s idea to halt negotiations on Friday.

“They owe us a response to our latest counter offer,” he said. “The amount of money that they’re proposing for us to accept that would not secure our medical, our pension benefits and leave workers with enough money for decent wage increases in the second, third and fourth years of the contract.”

Watanabe said both sides have taken steps forward. They strengthened language in the contract that “disincentivized the hotel from attempting to subcontract more work or existing work” and required it to negotiate with the union before doing so. They also addressed automation and gave workers “real power in terms of deciding what their future will look like as technology changes.” That includes training workers whose jobs may be replaced by automation.

“Each time we’ve met, we’ve made significant movement and progress in our bargaining,” Watanabe said. “We haven’t been able to make enough progress where we can announce a settlement and reach an agreement, so we still have some work to do.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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