Cleaners join union and fight back

Issue 

By Tom Flanagan

SYDNEY — Housekeeping staff at the Hyde Park Plaza in Sydney have won an important victory. Their employer, Mirvac, backed off from its attempt to contract out their jobs after a lively and well-attended picket on June 25.

According to the Australian Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union (LHMU), the contractor had presented existing staff with a contract and told them, "Sign it or you won't have a job". The workers refused, held a stop-work meeting and insisted that union representatives be involved in negotiations

Mirvac delayed the contracting out by two weeks and began negotiating, but then, without warning, again presented workers with a contract, telling them they had until June 29 to sign it or a non-union workforce would take over their jobs.

Around 60 staff, union officials and progressive activists staffed the picket line at the corner of College and Oxford Streets on June 25. The picketers distributed leaflets explaining the situation, solicited honks of support from passing motorists and chanted "Shame, Mirvac, shame" at management who were watching from inside the hotel. A support rally was scheduled for noon, but by 10.30am management had decided to back off.

After the victory, Troy Burton, an organiser with the LHMU, told Green Left Weekly: "Earlier this year, Mirvac tried to introduce non-union agreements into their hotels. The workers became unionised, particularly strongly in the housekeeping departments. The housekeeping departments led a very strong campaign against those agreements and were able to defeat them. They opposed them because they were an attack on their work conditions."

Burton explained that the workers at the Hyde Park Plaza were told that to keep their jobs they would have to sign individual agreements with Australasian Housekeeping Systems, the prospective contractor. They all refused to sign, stood firm with their union and called for support from other unions and other hotel workers, leading to the strong picket line. "The entire housekeeping department was on that picket line, along with family, friends, other union workers, people from other hotels and people from community groups", Burton said.

Commenting on the wider implications of the dispute, Burton said: "Mirvac is one of the major employers in four- and five-star hotels in Sydney. At first it attempted the non-union agreement strategy to change conditions. When that didn't work it attacked what it thought was the most vulnerable sector, the largely non-English speaking background workers in the housekeeping department of their smallest hotel. If the company had got away with it at the Hyde Park Plaza, it would have spread through the rest of the Mirvac properties.

"The level of unionisation in the hotel industry has been extremely low. Over the last 12 months, the LHMU has initiated a campaign to help workers in the hotels get themselves unionised. It's been extremely successful. About 100 hotel workers are joining the union each month. The workers at the Hyde Park Plaza were one of the first groups to organise themselves into a union and to stand up to their employer."