As political scientists head to their annual convention, the workers at the convention hotels prepare to protest: Here’s what you can do

by Corey Robin on August 26, 2018

The American Political Science Association is holding its annual convention this coming week in Boston. As luck would have it, the three hotels (all owned by the Marriott chain) at which the convention is being held are in the midst of a labor dispute with the hotels’ workers, who are members of Local 26 of UNITEHERE.

The issues are many, but the main one is that, as the union contract has expired and the workers renegotiate a new one, they’d like to make sure that a hotel worker should only have to work at one job—not two, not three—in order to support herself and her family. That’s the workers’ demand: “One job should be enough.” And that’s the name of their campaign, which you can read more about here.

Additionally, the workers are frustrated by the hotels’ cynical use of environmentalism to cut costs and increase the burden on workers.

Whenever you go to a hotel these days, you see these signs: don’t wash your towels every day, save the environment. Or don’t opt for housekeeping, make the planet green. Sounds great, right? For the workers, it’s a nightmare. According to this eye-opening expose in the Boston Globe:

But the housekeepers who would otherwise be cleaning these rooms, many of them immigrants, say the increasingly popular programs are cutting into their livelihoods by reducing their hours, making their schedules more erratic, and — ironically — making their jobs harder. That’s because rooms that go without housekeeping for several days are often a wreck — trash piled up, shower doors coated in gunk, crumbs in the carpet, and hair everywhere.

I can’t help noting the irony: The hotel industry, which depends on the carbon-emitting and planet-destroying activity of millions of people hopping into their cars and driving to the airport where they then fly hundreds and thousands of miles to their destinations, happily gives its customers the opportunity to do their little bit for the planet by cutting workers’ hours and making their lives and jobs harder. I guess this is the hotel version of carbon offsets, and as is often the case, it’s working class people of color, many from the Global South, who pay the price.

I reached out to one of the officers at Local 26, who said that the union is not asking people to boycott the hotel or to refuse to cross picket lines. At least not yet. Instead, here are three things the union would like members of APSA to do:

  • Sign this pledge to support Marriott workers at this dispute develops.
  • Refuse the “Make a Green Choice/Your Choice” program at check in.
  • Participate in an informational picket and action that is planned at the Sheraton, one of the main hotels of the convention, on Thursday, August 30, at 1 pm.




engels 08.26.18 at 5:49 pm

I agree very much with ‘one job should be enough’ but would hesitate a bit about getting my room cleaned more often than I want, even though that’s worse for the environment, in order to create more work for cleaners. Should I also try to spill more stuff when I’m in the restaurant so the janitors get more hours or take food from the buffet and throw it away so they have to hire more chefs? If it’s harder to clean towels after three uses than it is after one I think they should be demanding more money for doing that imo, not opposing an environmentally positive programme, however self-serving its motivations.


nastywoman 08.26.18 at 9:32 pm

YES!! –
to supporting workers and that they only get just one job which pays a living wage —and not two, not three—in order to support themselves and their family –
and always YES to the ”Green Choice” too –
as when the workers will get just one job which pays a living wage – they will say YES to the Green Choice too!


TimP 08.26.18 at 9:59 pm

I often stay in hotels. Hyatt hotels. I understand that the owners approach to labor is amongst the worst.

I leave a few bucks tip to whoever comes along to clean my room after I’ve left. I make a small effort not to leave the room unnecessarily untidy. I understand this makes me complicit in the underpayment of these workers as the owners then can further skimp on actual salary. I also don’t think an extra $5 for whoever picks it up means more than my general indignation at the labor conditions these workers endure and compel me to chip in the tip.


LizardBreath 08.26.18 at 10:17 pm

Hooray for supporting hotel workers, but I don’t understand the argument about not getting your towels laundered. Any hotel I’ve been in that does that, the room still gets cleaned — bed made, bathroom straightened up, they just don’t switch out the towels for fresh ones.


NK 08.27.18 at 12:52 am

LizardBreath, I believe the programs in question are ones in which one does not have the room cleaned at all during one’s stay (or at least, not every day), not just programs in which towels aren’t laundered. That said, I tend to agree with the comments above that I just prefer not having my room cleaned every day, for a host of reasons. I’d be happy to support movements for higher wages or more reasonable per-room cleaning times (which is to say, basically a higher staff-room ratio) but getting my room cleaned more than I actually want it to be seems like a very problematic way to support hotel workers.


faustusnotes 08.27.18 at 1:27 am

The environmental thing seems like a distraction. As LIzardbreath says, normally you get your room cleaned but the towels remain unchanged (or is this another case of Americans organizing basic social processes badly, like tipping and cheques?) More fundamentally the point of any labour action is to get the bosses to spend more on workers and put more effort into making conditions better. If green choices are an important part of modern hotel business that change the way in which workers work, then they should be forcing the management to accept that and modify the way in which they manage workers (e.g. by employing more and paying them more and ensuring they have regular hours) rather than campaigning to remove the green choices.

I’m also dubious about the idea that the “don’t make up the room” signs have anything to do with environmentalism. When I’m at a conference the main reason I use that sign is because I’ve received some stupid urgent job from my work so instead of being at the conference I’m in my hotel room working; and when I’m on holiday the main reason is I’m chilling in bed. In Japan, Singapore and China this usually means the cleaning staff knock on your door and offer to change the towels and replace cosmetics, then come back later and clean your room when you’re gone.

(Not that I’d expect Asian levels of service in the USA, I guess…)


pseudo-gorgias 08.27.18 at 1:40 am

I never would have guessed that Professor Robin was an expert on the hotel industry–I guess you learn something new everyday! Here’s a quick question–what is the profit margin of Mariott hotels? What is their revenue? Take the first number and multiply by the second–how much is that? Take that in turn, and divide it by every worker in the hotel chain–how much is that? What I could find shows that they made about 350,000,000 net income in 2017, from 170,000 workers. So I guess the maximum raise a worker would be looking at, in a world where labour demanded exactly 100% of their added value, would be about 2000 dollars a year. Or about 200 dollars a month. Or 50 dollars a week.


bad Jim 08.27.18 at 4:50 am

I always hang up my towels as a signal that I don’t need them changed, but I can’t recall a single instance in which they weren’t replaced with clean ones.


engels 08.27.18 at 9:48 am

(Disclosure: I always put those signs up because I’m very tidy person with weird sleeping habits.)


Procopius 08.27.18 at 10:50 am

Some years ago one of the teachers at the Thai private school where I was working was directed to give a course on Marketing. I happened to notice in one of his early lessons he was telling the students they needed to identify the “stakeholders” in their marketing universe. This included the firm’s employees and stockholders, as well as potential customers and managers. I have hated Milton Friedman for many years, for many reasons, but one of the biggest reasons is his selling the idea that the ONLY responsibility of management is to increase shareholder return. Even Frederick Winslow Taylor believed his “scientific management” should have as its goal providing the greatest benefit for both managers and workers, as well as the stockholders. There have always been greedy, callous, cruel managers (Adam Smith asserted owners would always prefer to use slave labor if the law and the nature of their business allowed it), but it’s been much worse under Friedman’s ideology.


anonymousse 08.27.18 at 1:05 pm

reminds me of the old joke: a union officer notices a new steamshovel digging a hole at a construction site. He says to the site manager: “Ten men with shovels could to the same work as that one man in the steamshovel!”

Responds the site manager: “How about 100 men with teaspoons?”



hix 08.27.18 at 6:13 pm

To demand that one should create more work by demanding unecessary daily room cleaning is sort of ridiculous. The envirnonmental argument for doing so is of course also ridculous. Its also uterly unbelievable that the described on call scheduling policy is direct conequence of customers sometimes skipping room cleaning. You cant tell me a big chain hotel is unable to plan ahead for their 100+ rooms location to avoid that even when cleaning is somewhat more random than before. Its an excuse not a cause. Fighting the exuse wont help.

One of the most anoying places i ever stayed was a hostel in Dublin. One had to renew the keycard everyday after arround 11.30 and it would only start working again at 14 – it was their technique of questionable efficiency to kick everyone out of the room to clean undisturbed.


George Head 08.27.18 at 6:26 pm

I agree with Engels @1 that it’s a losing argument, one that has a long history, to suggest that we ought to increase rather than decrease work in order to give more people jobs. The aim should be to provide everyone access to basic services outside of the commodity system, minimise wage labour, and to maximise the space for self-development. The fundamental answer to a company replacing living with non-living labour – or just reducing the need for labour – is to socialise it and turn the profits over to society at large. I’m too much of a technological determinist to think that, in the long-run, there’s any other answer to the increasing automation of the economy, i.e. to embrace and it repurpose it for socialism, rather than try and resist it.

This kind of systematic proposition is obviously little consolation for someone about to lose their job, but in this case certainly, the main demand – that workers should receive a living wage – seems like a perfectly good basis on which to organise.


medrawt 08.27.18 at 7:47 pm

Until earlier this month, my hotel-environmental-policy experience was entirely as LizardBreath describes, but I recently stayed in:

(a) a hotel where I thought the explicitly stated policy was that if I participated (with a $5 daily credit on in-hotel expenditures as incentive) my room would be spruced up but sheets, towels, etc. would go unchanged. In fact it is clear that my room was never entered. I chalked this up to what was otherwise, by evidence, not a well-managed hotel, except that:

(b) I also spent one night in a hotel where the stated policy (that I could not test because I was only overnight) seemed to explicitly be that they’d leave my room alone if I participated.


Trader Joe 08.27.18 at 8:38 pm

Hmmmm….I spend about 75 nights a year in hotels probably around 2/3 of these in Marriott or Starwood (now merged) properties and I can’t really see at all how electing or not electing the “GreenChoice” has anything much to do with the time spent by staff on my room.

I elect it 100% of the time and as noted above – you don’t get fresh towels, but they still take out the trash, make the bed, replace the coffee, water and fruit (if used) and restock the mini bar as necessary (of course they’d never forget that). I’d have said they run a vacuum too, although I wouldn’t guarantee that.

As Faustnotes and the OP said the environmental aspect of that is kinda a red herring. Less often laundered towels last longer and don’t suck up as many washing machines. The energy and water part is pretty incidental when you think about the environmental catastrophe implicit in most travel. It varies by property, but slightly over half of all stays are 2 nights or less anyway so there isn’t much mileage in the savings even if elected (I’m usually 2 nights max in my travel)

This is a worker set if ever there was one where tipping should be banned and employees paid whatever the living wage is for the metro in question. As also noted above the tipping is used as an excuse, too few do it and even those that do, rarely do enough (guilty myself – many times). I hope they get the increases they deserve, but this doesn’t seem like the right vector for applying pressure on management.


Zamfir 08.28.18 at 9:23 am

@Engels, it’s not about the towels. Those go into a washer, some work no matter how dirty they are.

It’s about the general cleaning of a room. Cleaning staff generally gets a fixed number of rooms to clean in a time slot. If a room is messier than the average, they don’t get more time to clean, they are just expected to work faster on the remaining rooms (or stay longer unpaid to finish the job to compensate for their “failure” to meet the schedule)

So programs like this increase the odds of having oh-shit-rooms in your schedule. Which is, of course, exactly the point. It’s a way to get crisis-mode fast work out of the cleaners, without extra pay.

It’s the miniature version of loading debt on a company after a buy-out. Now the company is in crisis, and everyone has to work extra hard, and is more willing to sacrifice in order to save the company from the artificial crisis.


mw 08.28.18 at 12:42 pm

High-service hotels are now competing with low/no-service AirBnB rentals. People are getting used to the model of nobody coming in to clean or bother you or your stuff for your entire stay. And my wife and I definitely prefer it — not because of questionable environmental claims, but just because the value of not being disturbed is greater than of having towels replaced and beds made. Don’t come in and fuss, don’t turn down the sheets and leave us mints on the pillow, just send us the code and leave us alone. We don’t want to have to wait at a desk to check in and out, we don’t need anybody to schlep our luggage, but we definitely do appreciate the full kitchens and living spaces found in rentals. In that environment with those kinds of expectations becoming more common, how much pricing power do hotels have to retain traditional service levels, pay staff more, raise rates to cover the increases, and not lose market share?


engels 08.28.18 at 5:00 pm

programs like this increase the odds of having oh-shit-rooms in your schedule

The rational response to that is to demand to be allocated more time for cleaning those rooms, not to demand to clean the rooms more often than the guests want.


Another Nick 08.28.18 at 9:14 pm

pseudo-gorgias @ 7: “What I could find shows that they made about 350,000,000 net income in 2017, from 170,000 workers.”

Marriott reported a net income of $1.37 billion for 2017.


William Berry 08.28.18 at 9:30 pm


Could you remind us of why you call yourself “engels”?

(Maybe you have never said, but one can’t help wondering if there was some rationale involved.)


Collin Street 08.29.18 at 12:59 am

Engels: calling people irrational is generally regarded as an insult. If people are doing in their area of expertise things you don’t understand, it’s a good rule of thumb to presume that it’s a result of ignorance on the part of the non-expert, you, rather than presuming that you know what’s involved in other people’s jobs better than they do.

I mean, maybe you do, but it’s not common or usual and shouldn’t be your go-to explanation. I can think of at least two fairly-obvious reasons they might be doing this, but a certain modoicum of self-doubt is a good general rule, I think.


Nahim 08.29.18 at 3:24 am

pseudo-gorgias @7:

I imagine the “costs” include exorbitant salaries paid to the top brass. I imagine we could eke out more than 50 bucks a week increase for workers if we were willing to cut into some of the fat elsewhere.


Hey Skipper 08.29.18 at 3:27 pm

[OP:] I can’t help noting the irony: The hotel industry, which depends on the carbon-emitting and planet-destroying activity of millions of people hopping into their cars and driving to the airport where they then fly hundreds and thousands of miles to their destinations …

So, let’s say you achieve your wet dream and stop all those millions of people from doing what they want to do and going where they want to go.

Please describe to us how you will handle the unparalleled devastation that will follow in Hawaii, Caribbean, Tahiti, Croatia, Iceland, Greece, and other places beyond counting relying upon tourism to avoid starvation.

The irony I can’t help but noting is that you haven’t apparently given that problem even a glancing thought.

Sucks to be them, I suppose.


Collin Street 08.30.18 at 12:34 am

It’s non-linear, engels. Small chunks of frequent cleaning keep things cleaner than the same total time in bigger chunks. Think dental work.

Plus it’s easier to find and schedule small chunks than large, because otherwise-unaboidable gaps, and also because of stability bias “don’t make this change that makes things worse” is a more straightforward campaign than “make this change that makes things better”. Generally it’s a bad idea to assume that something people aren’t doing is “the” (single, solitary) “rational response”.


Zamfir 08.30.18 at 6:57 am

The rational response to that is to demand to be allocated more time for cleaning those rooms, not to demand to clean the rooms more often than the guests want.

I am sure they would like that, but it’s clearly not that easy to get… that’s why the strikes and all. Renegotiating terms is hard, and you’re at a disadvantage.

It’s a common trick of exploitative employers. Stick to the hard, explicit conditions (so many rooms per hour), and worsen the softer implicit terms (how dirty is a typical room, how much variation between rooms).

In the mean time, the cleaners can appeal directly to the customers, and ask them to help.


engels 08.30.18 at 10:34 am

Could you remind us of why you call yourself “engels”?

Because I never criticise anything any union d—oh wait you got me!

Small chunks of frequent cleaning keep things cleaner than the same total time in bigger chunks. Think dental work.

I do hope my dentist isn’t joining the action…


William Berry 08.31.18 at 6:07 am


I actually don’t disagree with anyone here about the inadequacy of Luddism or make-work to address the problems of labor. That is an enormous problem concerning which I have some ideas, but to to get into all that would be a lot more effort than I am willing to expend l just now.


The rational response to that is to demand to be allocated more time for cleaning those rooms,

is, not to put too fine a point on it, fucking ridiculous.

For thirty-plus years I was shop steward, sometime officer (including president of USW Amalgamated 7686), and four times negotiating committee member, representing the Steelworkers in bargaining with Noranda Aluminum and several smaller.companies whose employees were represented by our sub-locals. I can attest with some authority that, even backed by one of the most powerful unions in the country, getting the smallest concession on the smallest point was like pulling teeth.

But you have the nerve to suggest that hotel cleaning staff— disproportionately African-American and Hispanic, never mind female — one of the most disfranchised and exploited demographics in the US, could demand anything

What the hell is wrong with you?

[OK, never mind. You’ve given me more than enough reason to not care what you think.]


engels 08.31.18 at 12:42 pm

So Berry flies into a rage because I used the word ‘demand’, Street because I used the word ‘rational’. Don’t take this the wrong way dudes but I could have a more interesting argument with my dog.


engels 08.31.18 at 12:47 pm

(If it helps with your blood pressure please rephrase my point as ‘the best response to that is to campaign for…’)


William Berry 08.31.18 at 3:29 pm

Okie dokie. Whatever you say “dude”.

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