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Prohibited from unionizing, hotel workers protest

Protesters demanded better employee treatment and ending tax breaks for the Renaissance Hotel

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, September 19, 2013

At least 30 hotel workers, labor allies and community organizers gathered yesterday at the Renaissance Hotel, chanting, drumming and shaking pebble-filled water bottles in loud protest of the hotel’s mistreatment of its employees.

“There are two different fights — one for no more tax breaks, and one for better treatment of workers,” said Andrew Tillet-Saks, an organizer from Unite Here Local 217. Over 75 percent of the current Renaissance staff signed a petition to unionize, but the company refused to allow it, he said.

“Our rights are not guaranteed if there is no union,” said Auro Rodriguez, a Renaissance Hotel worker, through a translator.

Unionizing would allow people from all different levels of employment — from housekeepers to maintenance people to management — to negotiate on “equal footing” with the owners, said Stephanie Medina ’14, a member of the Brown Student Labor Alliance.

Santa Brito, a housekeeper at the Renaissance Hotel, said, through a translator, she “started fighting because less than a year ago the company fired (her) right after (she) gave birth,” adding that she had worked right up until the birth of her son. “Nobody else in this hotel should have to go through what I went through,” Brito said. She chanted on the megaphone, “Escucha, escucha! Estamos en la lucha,” which translates to “Listen, Listen! We’re in the fight.”

When some Renaissance hotel workers came to campus to talk to members of the SLA, “one worker came and told us that the chemicals in the cleaning supplies she used while working at the hotel caused health problems and caused her to have a miscarriage,” said Mariela Martinez ’14, an SLA member. Because the hotel is in such close proximity to the University, “it’s our responsibility,”  Martinez added.

The Renaissance currently receives a tax exemption from the city, which over the next 12 to 14 years could be valued between $8 and $10 million, the Providence Journal reported. The 10-year-old agreement was made to assist a previous owner, Sage Hospitality Resources, convert the Masonic Temple, which had been vacant for some 70 years, into a luxury hotel. When The Procaccianti Group purchased the hotel in 2012, the tax breaks carried over.

“It was very powerful to hear directly from the hotel workers about the abuses they’d experienced,” said Shelby Mack ’14, an SLA member. “I don’t think the Procaccianti Group deserves that tax break.”

Shelby Maldonado, a candidate for City Council, said, “These are people I know, maybe not directly, but through their experience and where they’re coming from.”

As the protest grew, Tillet-Saks began to encourage people to move the picket line closer to the hotel.

“At the first picket we tried to confront hotel management but they refused to meet us,” Martinez said, adding that the management asked the police to supervise the protest in what she called an intimidation tactic, but “we’re in our legal right.”

Chris Cook, an employee of the nearby Omni Hotel, said he supports reform for the employees, whether or not it is through union organization. Cook said he is concerned that conditions at the Renaissance could set a dangerous standard for the city’s hotels.

Jobs with Justice Rhode Island sponsors a  picket of the Renaissance on the third Wednesday of every month to raise awareness about the issue, Tillet-Saks said.

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