Currently women workers are leading the march of labor in this country. Although it is lost amid the headlines of the #MeToo movement, this movement’s call for an end to sexual harassment and assault is at its core a demand for safe and equitable workplaces.
But while #MeToo has garnered the most media coverage, it is not the only cause that has women workers marching.
Starting last February, teachers in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Colorado went on strike for better wages, smaller class sizes, and adequate resources for their classrooms.
In September, hotel workers represented by the labor union UNITE HERE in Chicago went out on strike. By October, they were joined by hotel workers in eight other U.S. cities, from Boston to Honolulu, in the largest strike of hotel workers in U.S. history.
What all these actions have in common is that women workers are leading the way. Women are holding the megaphones on the strike lines. Women are telling their stories about unfair and unsafe working conditions on social media. Women are talking to elected officials and demanding change. Women workers are on the march.
I saw this firsthand when I visited the UNITE HERE picket line in front of the historic Palmer House hotel last fall. The picket line was predominantly women and workers of color, who chanted and sang along with a portable speaker, catching the attention of passersby on Chicago’s bustling Wabash Avenue.
Along with the Palmer House, workers at a total of twenty-five hotels joined the first day of the strike, including at the Hilton Chicago, Hyatt Regency Chicago, the J.W. Marriott, and the Sheraton Grand. Soon the strike grew to twenty-six hotels, as the workers at the Cambria Magnificent Mile also took to the picket lines.
In a city like Chicago that thrives on tourism and convention dollars, the strike quickly gained the attention of the media and local social and political leaders.
The central issue of the Chicago strike was health care. Hotel workers are often laid off during slow seasons, causing them to lose their health benefits. This has had devastating economic and health impacts for many of these workers.
As an unnamed housekeeper from the Palmer House explained to the Chicago Business Journal, “hotels may slow down in the wintertime, but I still need my diabetes medication when I’m laid off. Nobody should lose their health benefits just because it’s cold out. Full-time jobs should have year-round benefits. They work us like dogs when it’s busy and then kick us to the curb in the winter.”
One week into the strike, the hotel workers and their allies held a march down the Magnificent Mile, the main artery of Chicago’s downtown retail district. The march was led by two thousand hotel workers—housekeepers and bartenders, doormen and waitstaff—who along with their allies filled the streets as they banged on bucket drums and blew whistles.
By the end of September, the strike was settled at fifteen hotels, including the Palmer House. Over thirty-five hundred workers had won guaranteed winter health care for the first time. In the weeks that followed, the other hotels also signed new collective bargaining agreements with their workers.
Every Chicago hotel has seen an end to the strike—except the Cambria where, as of this writing, the workers remain on the picket lines. They also remain determined to win a fair contract.
Because they understand that across the country women workers are not just marching. They are winning.