Last night the Westin Providence hotel and union workers of Unite Here Local 217, came to an agreement on a contract ending a labor dispute that started in March. At a press conference — which organizers held in both English and Spanish — workers rejoiced with cries of, "I have my job back!" and "Welcome back to the Westin!"
The contract's details were not disclosed, but a press release called it a "mutually beneficial agreement" that will provide "solid job security," prohibit increased subcontracting and set a baseline number of full-time jobs.
"It's a huge community victory. It's a huge worker victory," said Camilo Viveiros, executive director of Rhode Island Jobs with Justice, an organization that supported the Westin employees.
Workers began boycotting the hotel after their union contract expired Oct. 2009. In March 2010, the Westin unilaterally decreased wages by 20 percent, increased the cost of health care by 20 percent, hired 50 subcontracted workers and decreased vacation time for select long-time employees, Viveiros said.
Rhode Island Jobs with Justice, with help from the Brown Student Labor Alliance, discouraged groups from holding events at the Westin by informing them of the boycott. Beth Caldwell '12 said the Student Labor Alliance successfully encouraged three Brown groups to hold their events elsewhere, including the 2011 Class Board's Gala.
Even with community help and the "perseverance" of employees, the struggle was full of "blood, sweat and tears," said Audrie Ramsay, an employee of three years at the Westin and member of the union's negotiations committee.
Ramsay was laid off in June 2009, along with many other employees, but she will be one of the 50 percent of workers to get their jobs back as part of the contract, she said.
The renegotiation of contracts between the union and the Westin happens every few years, but this one has been the most difficult, said Carmen Castillo, who has worked as a room attendant for 16 years and has served on the negotiations committee for 13 years.
In the past, the negotiations committee had worked with the state government rather than with the owners of the Westin, Castillo said. The committee found the owners harder to negotiate with.
When the Westin decreased wages in March, they also increased employees' workload, according to Castillo. This increase in expected workload resulted in an increased number of back injuries and sparked worker frustration, Viveiros said.
Castillo, who received applause as she walked to the podium at the press conference, said this was a historic night for housekeeping. She said she felt "proud" of the new contract because of the economic and managerial pressure the workers were able to overcome.
Mayor Angel Taveras said the agreement is important to the city. He added that he wants to increase the level of tourism to help build the city's hotel business and benefit hotel employees.
Castillo announced that the workers' "next victory" will be a contract for employees at the Renaissance Hotel.