John Edwards, a former U.S. senator and Democratic vice presidential candidate, spoke yesterday at a union rally of hotel workers in Waikiki. The contracts of about 6,500 Hawaii workers at nine hotels are set to expire at the end of the month. Hotel employees, who are paid an average of $14 an hour, say they deserve to share in the wealth brought on by Hawaii's booming tourism industry.
Edwards' hotel-union push hits Waikiki
The former candidate for vice president says strong wages are key to preserving Hawaii's heritage
Former vice-presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. John Edwards joined Honolulu's hotel workers yesterday to push for better benefits in the middle of the first round of union negotiations.
Contracts for approximately 6,500 Local 5 hotel workers employed in 10 of Waikiki's largest hotels expire this month. Unite Here, which represents about 11,000 service workers in Hawaii, encompasses about 90,000 full-service hotel workers in the United States and Canada.
Union talks between Local 5 and Hawaii's hotel companies began earlier this month. Local 5 is already negotiating with Sheraton and Hilton, and has yet to meet with Marriott and Hyatt.
"We hope we can get some contracts in place by the end of the month," said Cade Watanabe, a spokesman for Local 5. "June 30 is fast approaching and we're not encouraged by the slow pace."
While Hawaii is second among the top 25 hospitality markets in the United States and ranks among the top tourist destinations in the world, service wages don't reflect the prosperity of the industry, Watanabe said.
The average Local 5 housekeeper in Hawaii, who lives in one of the most expensive cities in the country, earns an average of $14 per hour -- a full $6 less than that of the union housekeepers in New York, where the cost of living is comparable, according to Local 5 economic data.
Gerhard Seibert, managing director for Hilton Hawaii, said his company offers "the second-highest average hotel wages in the nation" and vowed to "work hard to reach a mutually beneficial agreement" in the talks.
Representatives for Starwood and Marriott could not be reached for comment by press time.
Edwards, who was John Kerry's running mate in the 2004 presidential election and is himself considering running for president in 2008, has already visited San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston as part of the Unite Here Hotel Workers Rising campaign that kicked off earlier this year.
Whether or not Hawaii's hotels provide strong wages and benefits for workers will have a direct impact on the state's ability "to preserve its heritage and traditions," Edwards said. "If we have good wages and benefits for the state's dominant industry then people will stay here."
Edwards' comments went to the heart of the issues in union negotiations for many of Hawaii's hotel workers, said Ian Tsugawa, a guest services agent at Marriott and shop steward for Local 5.
Hotel wages are still not high enough to compensate for Hawaii's cost of living, said Tsugawa, who is working a second job to fund his dream of building his own home on Hawaiian homestead lands.
Other union concerns include protection from subcontracting, job security for military personnel who are called to action and how to cope with an ever-increasing workload, said Stella Galon, a housekeeper who has worked for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel for almost 18 years.
Galon praised Edwards for his support, saying, "At least some politicians care enough to travel to Hawaii to support us in our fight to improve our wages, benefits, health care and to protect our jobs."