Providence Talks

by by Jesse Strecker

Hipolito Rivera is a houseman at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Providence. He came here with his family from Puerto Rico about 20 years ago and has been working in Rhode Island ever since. Presently, his job description includes bringing clothes to housekeeping, taking out trash, carrying extra beds, and a variety of other odd jobs. A soft spoken man, he has taken a prominent leadership role in organizing a campaign for unionization at his job.
On January 5, 2010, Rivera, along with over 100 Providence Renaissance workers and community members representing clergy, politicians, and students converged at the hotel. Together they told management they had organized for change at work.

Indy: How did you begin organizing with the union?

Rivera: A co-worker, Veronica, spoke to me about them. They came to visit me at home.
Before we presented to managers, everything was secret. We spoke to our co-workers about the proposals of the union. We talked with housekeepers about how they give people so many rooms to clean, and almost no supplies. We talked about the rooms people have to clean that are very dirty, with vomit or where people have defecated.
We said, when the union comes, that’s all going to change; If you do this work, you’re going to get paid extra. We talked with people, trying to get them to unite with us. Now, almost everyone wants a union.
Since we announced ourselves at work, a lot of things have been fixed.
there’s better treatment, we’ve got the materials we need, it’s helped us a lot. But what was the ultimate goal? To sign a contract with us to secure these good things they were doing.

I:Have there been any more changes?

R:Oh yes. For example, it had been nine months since I moved from laundry to houseman, and I still didn’t have a uniform. They called me into the office, and they quickly got me one. There weren’t supplies for us in housekeeping. They bought more. And they’ve been good at getting people their pay on time.
Some of the managers left—others had been letting them do a lot of things that aren’t allowed.
And they treat us better. They’re treating us with more respect. Before, they spoke to us with harsh demands. Now, they’re very attentive.

I: Why do you work with the union?

R: The union gets an employee all the benefits he deserves, like better pay, more respect, so you’re not just dependent on the employer. They always have someone tending to what an employee needs. They do the things that managers and supervisors don’t do.
The union is just. They try to make sure employees are paid fairly. They watch out for us. They’re there when the bosses mistreat us, when they make us do things that aren’t in our job description. Right now, they have us housemen doing the work of laundry, they have us doing the work of housekeeping also, which sends us to clean rooms with vomit, rooms where people have defecated. They send us to get dirty, wet clothes from rooms. They need to pay us extra for these things, and they don’t.
I started out at $10 an hour. I’ve been there two years and six months, and I still haven’t gotten a raise to $11. They haven’t given us the raises we’re supposed to get. If we had the union, we’d see these changes.

I: What else do you hope to gain?

R: We hope they’ll pay us fairly. We hope they’ll give us a better medical plan. Right now, I pay $52 for my medical plan that doesn’t have many benefits. The union guarantees a better plan that we pay less for.

I: What was it like to be in the room for the first time with the other committee members?

R: I liked it a lot. You start to see who’s part of the union, one by one. It was exciting to know that we’re going to have a change at work.
I was very surprised too. I had no idea there were so many leaders at my job. When I came and saw all these people, it gave me strength.

I: How did you participate in the first delegation?

R: We went in a big group, basically all the employees of the Renaissance, and people from the Westin from the Biltmore. We felt very supported. There were nine people who wanted to speak directly with them. Five employees and four politicians also came to speak. We waited and waited, but no one came out.
Eventually someone from Human Resources came out. Betsy from the kitchen and Benjamin from the kitchen both spoke. But when we went to speak, she turned her back on us, she just walked away. They listened to the politicians, but they turned their back on us.
And she represents human resources. Her job is to listen to us, but she just left. She’s not supposed to be on the side of the owners, or the side of the employees. She’s in the middle, she’s supposed to be neutral. I felt disappointed with them. I thought she would do her work. But this demonstrated that they only stand with the owners. I learned this that day. In reality, it’s not like they say, that we’re taken care of by them. No, it’s a lie.
But this gives me more strength to fight with the union.

I: Why did workers from the Westin and the Biltmore participate?

R: We’re united, because they know the mistreatment we experience. It happened to them for a while. The union unites us all.
We’re all fighting for the same cause. The Westin is still negotiating their contract, and there are some problems there, but they have the privledge of having a union.

I: Has this experience changed you?

R: Yes, it’s changed me a lot. I feel more secure in my job because I see that since we spoke with managers, there’s more respect. I’m more satisfied, more secure.

I: Any last words?

R: I’d like to say, to anyone who reads this and has a job where there’s not the guard of a union, that they rise up. It’s the best thing that can happen to an employee, to work with a union. You work equally with managers. They look at you as though you’re somebody as well, not just an employee but somebody who matters.