Members of a union representing about 3,500 workers in Hawaii, most of them in Waikiki, took the first step Monday toward a massive strike at several of Honolulu’s largest properties.

About 95 percent of those voting favored authorizing a work stoppage, the union announced Monday night.

Possible strike targets include the landmark Royal Hawaiian, Westin Moana Surfrider, Sheraton Waikiki and Sheraton Princess Kaiulani, which are owned by Kyo-Ya Hotels & Resorts, as well as the Waikiki Beach Marriott. The Sheraton Maui, also owned by Kyo-Ya, also could be affected.

Hotel officials had little to say in response, but issued a statement saying they had plans in place to ensure the hotels could still provide guests a good experience if workers do decide to strike.

Unite 5 and Local 5 members and supporters cast their vote at Ala Moana Hotel.
UNITE HERE Local 5 members cast their votes at the Ala Moana Hotel on Monday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Although the vote means union workers could walk off the job at any time, a strike authorization vote often is enough to get management to budge, said Eric Gill, financial secretary and treasurer of UNITE HERE Local 5, which represents some 12,000 hospitality and health care workers statewide.

“The vote itself will put pressure on management,” Gill said.

Local 5’s contract expired in June, and some 50 items are at issue as the parties discuss a new one, Gill said. These range from the number of rooms housekeepers must clean per shift to policies to protect workers from sexual harassment and how to retrain workers whose jobs become less crucial due to automation.

“We want to come to an agreement with Marriott, but our members are preparing for a strike if contracts are not settled soon,” Gill said. “Our proposal is to make one job enough to live in Hawaii. Marriott’s proposal is to get another job.”

All of the hotels in question operate under management contracts with Marriott, which acquired Starwood Hotels and Resorts for $13.6 billion in 2016 to become the world’s largest hospitality company, with more than a million rooms operated under dozens of brands including Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis, W Hotels, Westin, Sheraton and Le Meridien.

Although Marriott manages the hotels under various brand flags, Kyo-Ya owns the bulk of them and is negotiating with the union, Gill said. Marriott executive are negotiating only for the Waikiki Marriott.

Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Waikiki
The Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki, owned by Kyo-Ya Hotels & Resorts, could experience an employee work stoppage thanks to Monday’s vote. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Marriott’s corporate communications staff in Oahu declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Kyo-Ya Hotels & Resorts, meanwhile, issued a short statement saying Kyo-Ya looked forward to further talks with the union.

“Although we are in continued contract discussions with UNITE HERE Local 5, we respect the right of our associates at Kyo-ya’s five properties in Hawaii to take a strike authorization vote,” said the statement attributed to Kyo-Ya.

The vote comes as tourism is booming and the unemployment rate is practically nil. Visitors to the state spent $1.66 billion in July 2018, an increase of 4.8 percent compared to the previous years, the Hawaii Tourism Authority reported in its latest preliminary data. Hotel room rates in Waikiki have been averaging about $230 with occupancy rates hovering higher than 80 percent, according to the HTA. Meanwhile, the state’s unemployment rate of about 2 percent means that many employers are scrambling to find and keep workers.

Hawaii’s high cost of living makes it increasingly difficult for workers to make ends meet, and Gill said that the low unemployment rate masks the fact that many people need to work multiple jobs to survive.

“It’s not booming for us,” Gill said. “It’s booming for the bosses.”

Thanks to cost-of-living wage increases, a union housekeeper now earns $22.14 an hour and gets health care coverage for the worker and the worker’s family, Gill said. But, he added, it’s simply not enough in a community where the median price of a single-family home is nearly $800,000. In addition, he said, many workers, like housekeepers and banquet staff, don’t get enough regularly scheduled hours to earn a living without working extra jobs.

“Even with all the increases, people are still falling behind,” he said.

The union has asked for across-the-board raises of $3 an hour for all workers as a starting point for talks, Gill said, adding Kyo-Ya and Marriott haven’t made a counter-offer. Gill said he hopes the vote will send management a message.

“They don’t really respect you unless you have power in the situation,” Gill said. “If we have the right to strike, they have to respect us.”

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