Hospitality workers around the country have faced some of the worst layoffs in any industry during the COVID-19 pandemic. UNITE HERE, a labor union representing over 300,000 workers, most of whom are in the hospitality, food service, and restaurant industries, reported that 98% of its members were out of work last year. At the five hotel properties in Virginia’s historic Colonial Williamsburg, however, workers who did get their jobs back are being chronically overworked and underpaid, resulting in injuries on the job and little to no ability to have a life outside of work.
What’s worse, according to a press release from UNITE HERE LOCAL 25, the union representing hospitality workers at Colonial Williamsburg, management with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation “has skipped seven bargaining sessions since August” and “has refused to meaningfully engage with workers’ demands to end forced overtime. Currently, Local 25 members in Colonial Williamsburg routinely work six- and seven-day weeks in the hotels and 10- and 12-hour days in the taverns, a practice workers are demanding an end to in the next contract.”
In this episode of Working People, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with Agatha Hilt, Willie Brown, and John Boardman of UNITE HERE Local 25 about what workers are going through and the status of the current contract fight. Agatha Hilt is a housekeeper at the Williamsburg Lodge and has worked there for the last 11 years, Willie Brown is a houseman at the Williamsburg Lodge and has worked at Colonial Williamsburg for seven years, and John Boardman is the executive secretary-treasurer of UNITE HERE Local 25.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Dwayne Gladden
Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Well, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, and supported entirely by listeners and viewers like you. Audio for Working People is produced by the amazing Jules Taylor, and we are also publishing a video version of today’s episode on The Real News Network YouTube channel produced by our wonderful Studio Manager, Dwayne Gladden.
In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about an important worker struggle that’s happening as we speak in the historic Colonial Williamsburg, where hospitality workers represented by UNITE HERE Local 25 who have already endured extended layoffs during the pandemic are fighting back against intransigent management to secure better and fairer work in conditions. According to a press release from the union local this week, “UNITE HERE Local 25, the union representing hospitality workers negotiating with Colonial Williamsburg, has reached out to a federal mediator to help facilitate negotiations with Colonial Williamsburg management.
“Local 25 is calling on the foundation to meet with union negotiators and the mediator this coming Friday, Dec. 17 and Monday, Dec. 20. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which has skipped seven bargaining sessions since August, has refused to meaningfully engage with workers’ demands to end forced overtime. Currently, Local 25 members in Colonial Williamsburg routinely work six and seven days a week in the hotels and 10 and 12-hour days in the taverns, a practice workers are demanding an end to in the next contract.”
So workers have been picketing in front of Colonial Williamsburg’s historic buildings this week to demand better working conditions. And I’m honored to be joined by some of those workers right now, and I want to introduce you all to them. So why don’t we go around the table and introduce ourselves.
Agatha Hilt: My name is Agatha Hilt. I’m a worker at Colonial Williamsburg Lodge for 11 years now. And it’s been rough.
Willie Brown: Yes. My name is Willie Brown and I’ve been with Colonial Williamsburg going on seven years in July. And I’m a houseman attendant.
John Boardman: I’m John Boardman, I’m the Chief Negotiator for UNITE HERE Local 25.
Maximillian Alvarez: And I wanted to maybe start off by building on what Agatha and Willie were just saying before we get to, say, the contract negotiations right now. I was wondering if you could give viewers and listeners, I guess, a sense of the kind of work that you do at Colonial Williamsburg and what that has looked like over the past couple years especially with this pandemic. We know that UNITE HERE members suffered probably the most layoffs across the country during the pandemic, and now you’ve gone from that to working forced overtime. Could you just give listeners a sense of what you go through on a week to week basis?
Agatha Hilt: Oh. Well we go through a lot. We work six and seven days every week, every month. Like I tell you, January, February, it’s slow. So when it’s slow they run you off the clock, at those times you can’t work no hours, but the rest of the months we work six, seven days. We strip our room, we pull it in bags, we walk, and look leaning to work. We can’t get to go home to cook. I have a 11 year old and a 13 year old at home. I reach home after 6:00. I have to cook those times that they can eat, by nine o’clock they got to go to their bed.
The food can’t digest, you can’t go to the store to buy food, you have to call out. You can’t go to the doctor, you have to call out tell them you can’t come that day, [you have to] get a different appointment. And when you talk to the manager they say, well the hotel is full you can’t get that day to go to the doctor. I asked one day, who tells you guys that we can work six days, Ms. Caroline? She said, yes, you can work six days. It’s very rough. Nobody wants to come here, they come and see the condition and how they treat us and how we have to work like slaves. They don’t come back. So we need help.
And they are getting two days off. Manager supervisor getting their two days off and while we have to work every six or seven days a week every month, and that is not fair. It’s not fair. We can’t get to go home to clean up our house, we can’t even get to bed. Sometimes you sit down in one place and you can’t get up the way you’re tired. When you walk your foot bottom hurts. I have a worker, her name is Mary, and she said she put her pot on the fire and she fell asleep, the pot burning up. Because we are tired and we need help. We can’t take this no more. It’s a disaster. And no thanks, and they talk to you anyhow when they’re ready. So it’s not right. So we need some help. I don’t say I can’t work six days sometimes, but not every God week. It is rough. It is very rough.
Willie Brown: Yeah. Because like I say we work, we can’t get the linen, the linen that we need for the girls. The linen’s supposed to be here, the contract, the linen’s supposed to be here like 10:00 in the morning. And these girls got to wait. Sometimes we don’t get to linen until three o’clock in the evening. By that time those girls already been through the rooms and then they got to go back to the rooms and put washcloths, towels –
Agatha Hilt: That’s right.
Willie Brown: …And stuff. And after they didn’t already work all through the day, they’re tired and they get off at 6:30, 7:00 at night. They got 13 rooms, they give them an extra two, mandatory, that’s 15.
Agatha Hilt: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Willie Brown: Then they want to give them five or six more rooms, that’s 20 something rooms. They don’t try to come out there and help and do the rooms themselves, they want to keep on coming out there pushing rooms on people.
Agatha Hilt: That’s right.
Willie Brown: And the housemen, we’re short of help. They can’t hire nobody because nobody wants to come here because they don’t want to pay them, so they throw all the workload on us. We’re tired. One day off ain’t enough. For that one day you go home, take a shower, and go to bed, then the next day you want to rest. And then you ain’t got time the next day because you got to be right back in here but your body’s still tied. But they seem like they don’t care.
Like I say, the supervisor gets two days they can be with their families and stuff, but we are still here. So I don’t know why we got to be here six days if the supervisor ain’t got to be here, because that’s the case. We are still sure the supervisor gets their day off, so I don’t know why we get treated like that because your body gets tired and broken down. And we have been doing this for a long time and the money we are making is nothing. You all know the gas prices are high, driving back and forth to work every two weeks so you’re putting a lot of money in your gas tank. So you really ain’t making nothing.
That’s why some of the girls buy these rooms because they need money to make ends meet. I mean, how are you going to make ends meet with what they’re paying us? So it’s just stressful too. I just don’t understand why they won’t sign the contract. They can’t get no help in here, so if they don’t get no help, guess what? We got to keep doing it. It’s every day. They don’t ask you, can you work six days? They just throw the schedule up there.
Agatha Hilt: That’s right.
Willie Brown: Don’t even care. So I don’t know.
Maximillian Alvarez: And John, I wanted to bring you in here and ask if you could say a little bit about what makes Colonial Williamsburg a bit of a special case? Obviously what Agatha and Willie are describing is sadly something we’ve heard from workers across industries across the country. Jobs treat workers like crap, they pay them like crap, and so turnover is high, and so the people who stay are being forced into more and more overtime. That seems to be a really disgusting trend for a lot of workers around the country.
And in the hospitality industry it can be especially backbreaking when you’re trying to get to X number of rooms in a certain amount of time. Like Willie and Agatha were saying, you got the linens, you got so many things to check on your list. But I guess for folks watching, they may not have expected something like this to be happening at the historic settings of Colonial Williamsburg. So I guess, could you give us a little sense of the particular situation there?
John Boardman: Thanks Max. Well I think the eloquence with which Agatha and Willie describe the situation captures it certainly better than I do. But what your listeners probably don’t think about is that the hospitality industry is a seven day a week, 24 hour day industry. And what’s happening in this situation is Agatha and Willie are required to do their job. They’re being forced to work six and seven days a week, but management is not doing their job. Their job is to hire people.
And part of what you are hearing, particularly with what Willie was saying, is that they don’t get paid enough. That’s part of management’s excuse right now, Max. That we can’t hire people because we don’t pay enough. Well if we had concluded the negotiation six months ago, which was what the union was trying to do, we would’ve had wage rates increase, which would’ve facilitated hiring more people, which would’ve made it easier for Agatha and Willie to get the time off that they need to have with their families.
Sadly, the history here is at Colonial Williamsburg, and you go 150, 160 years, think about this. At that point in time the people that were working at Colonial Williamsburg were not receiving any wage at all. Here we are 150, 160 years later and Agatha makes $12 and 50 cents an hour. 150 years later the difference between what was paid then, nothing, and what is paid now is $12 and 50 cents. I think that just says it all. The work that they do contributes to the financial viability of this institution and they should be recognized with a wage rate that reflects the hard work that they do.
But more importantly, and the key issue here, is a matter of respect for the idea that there’s life outside work. It isn’t enough simply to say that the business needs you and we command you to come into work. And if you don’t come into work, guess what? We’re going to fire you. That can’t be acceptable. 65 years ago in America we decided that a work week should be 5 days, 40 hours. And yet somehow Colonial Williamsburg thinks that teaching history means that you should be living it at work every day.
Enough is enough. People need to have a life outside work, they need a rational workload, they need to be able to be with their families. And you heard Agatha say it a moment ago, everyone in this industry recognizes that when occupancy or cover counts in the restaurants go up and down, sometimes we do have to work overtime. Everybody in this industry knows that. But not week after week, month after month. Bodies breaking down, families missing parents, that’s not right. And it has to change.
Agatha Hilt: Yes sir.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. And we’ll play some of the B-roll for this, but I think that was one of the things I was most struck by when I saw you all picketing to raise awareness about this earlier this week. Just the optics are mind-blowing. Given what we know about Colonial Williamsburg, you have Black and Brown workers, hospitality workers saying, we need to spend time with our family. We’re not being paid enough to actually live our lives. And amidst all of that the management is skipping bargaining sessions.
I mean how do you treat the people who make your business run with such disdain? I don’t know. And Agatha, I know to the point of everything we’re talking about, you have to get back to work in a second. So before you leave I guess I wanted to ask you if you could talk to viewers and listeners a bit about what management’s response has been to you and your co-workers raising these issues and what you really want viewers and listeners out there to know about what’s happening right now.
Agatha Hilt: Well what’s happening right now, we already have people to work, I understand. But they can treat us better. If they can give us even every other week two days off, I would like that. That you can get to clean up your house, run to the store, do what you have to do, and then come back to work. But then they’re not saying nothing, they just want their work to be done, that’s all. And if you call out they write you up. So I don’t see what’s happening right now.
Willie Brown: Well they should. I think they should come out on the floor and help the women. You know what I’m saying? To giving the girls all of them work, they’re already tired.
Agatha Hilt: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Willie Brown: That’s not easy work with what the women do. [crosstalk].
Agatha Hilt: Mm-hmm (affirmative). One room, two beds. Usually that’s well, two beds, two bathrooms and that is not right. Sometimes people pick up all 24 rooms. What can you do in 24 rooms?
Willie Brown: Yeah. And the housemen are doing two buildings. I’m doing two buildings, but I only get paid for one. You know what I mean?
Agatha Hilt: And two [crosstalk].
Willie Brown: Two buildings, that’s a lot of work. It’s bad enough you got to do your one building keep that straight, but then we are so sure to help they just throw you out there. If you got three houses here, you might have two and a half buildings. You can’t do all of that work, but they don’t care they just throw you out there –
Agatha Hilt: No care.
Willie Brown: …And expect you to do the work.
Agatha Hilt: [crosstalk].
Willie Brown: It ain’t but one person, I can’t do it all. But I try to do what I can do, but I can’t do it all. Because I’m one body, I can’t do all that work, especially and I’m not getting paid enough to do that work.
Agatha Hilt: And if you even fall down or you get your finger cut or anything, they say it’s on purpose. Because I fell down a step, nine steps, and they say, the railing is there, so it was on purpose. Ms. Mary picked up something off the floor, got her finger cut, they say it’s on purpose. And they’re done busy with you, you have to stand your own doctor fee. They’re done with their business. I go to court, I have to stand all my doctor fees.
Then one pay, they pay $150. That’s all I have to stand all the rest. I had to sit out one month with my ankle swollen, a torn ankle. I have to sit out one month and spend all of my money. It’s not good. I don’t see we are Colonial Williamsburg, but I don’t see why people have to work because they want money to pay their bills and take care of their kids.
Willie Brown: We don’t get no Christmas bonus, we don’t get no Christmas parties.
Agatha Hilt: Nothing.
Willie Brown: And then when you do get a Christmas party you got to bring your own stuff here, pile it up. They should be looking out for us so they got to bring stuff.
Agatha Hilt: Because we have to cook food and buy soda and buy bread and bring to keep our own party. There’s no good. I don’t see where they’re good. They just want money in their pocket, that’s all
Maximillian Alvarez: Man. And just so I’m clear on what you’re saying Agatha. You’re saying that when workers at Colonial Williamsburg get injured –
Agatha Hilt: Injured, yes.
Maximillian Alvarez: …Management accuses them of doing it on purpose?
Agatha Hilt: Yes. They tell me, they tell Ms Mary, they said they tell me that step. They send me to Medicare Express and they send me back to work with my sick ankle swelling up. And I have to argue with the doctor. And then they send me to Kingsmill riverside. And when they x-rayed, they said I have a tear, something in my foot. And the doctor put me out for one month and two weeks. And I have to pay every doctor bill. All they have paid this $50 to Medicare Express that’s all.
They say it’s purpose, that’s the railing is there to hold on coming down the step. And Ms. Murray cut her finger too, picking up a piece of shiny thing. She didn’t know that it was a razor. And Ms Caroline says, purpose. And Byron said, no, Ms Caroline. [inaudible] shining something so in just bending and picking it up out the room, he didn’t know that it was a razor. Dear Lord, child. Mm-mm (negative). You’re too much.
Willie Brown: And then the linen carts that we have there right now as we’re speaking, I’ve been telling them for the longest time the carts are about 25 years old, 30 years old, they’re hard to push. And I’ve been telling them that stuff can hurt your back. I mean, they’re so old it doesn’t make sense. The wheels barely can move and you have to push that stuff down the hall with all these heavy sheets and stuff, and they won’t do anything about it to get us some stuff in here. Then you tell them your back hurts, they think you’re lying. So the carts are old. If you see them yourself you’ll say, I don’t know how they do it. But we do it because they won’t get us the right stuff so we can do the work.
Maximillian Alvarez: And you know, I think we’ll round things out by talking to John and Willie about where the negotiations, such that they are, currently stand. But Agatha before you have to hop off, I wanted to ask if you had any final messages for folks watching and viewing on what they can do to show support for you and Willie and your coworkers.
Agatha Hilt: I want them to campaign and put it out there on the air and let them know. So we need help at Colonial Williamsburg Lodge. We need help and we need a raise. And we need –
Maximillian Alvarez: That’s why we –
Agatha Hilt: …Better management.
Willie Brown: That’s why we can’t get no help right now because everybody is going to other places because we could not pay nobody anything. You know what I mean? So why would they come here if they can go somewhere else and get more money?
Agatha Hilt: More money. Because McDonald’s pays $17 and they pay us $12.25. $12.50. Lord, have mercy.
John Boardman: What we’re seeing at Williamsburg is really a reflection of what’s going on nationally. Workers have been enduring horrendous conditions for years. The level of income inequality has increased dramatically over the last two decades. Working conditions as you’ve heard here at Colonial Williamsburg are from a period of time more than 65 years ago, with six and seven day work weeks, 12-hour days in the culinary areas.
What you’ve also heard is a determination on the part of the workers to change these conditions, to make sure that going into the future they have time with their families. That they are able to get an income that supports them sufficiently so that they can do the things they need to do, pay rent, buy food. These are not extravagant salaries, but they ought to be sufficient to support a family including the children.
Again, the issue that you heard today primarily was one of job conditions. This business of requiring people week after week to work six and potentially seven days, it can’t go on. You heard about the injuries, you heard about the inability to spend time with children, with families, to do simple things like buy groceries or to cook a meal or sit around the kitchen table and do homework with your child. The workers at Colonial Williamsburg right now are too exhausted to do those things when they get home. They don’t have enough time with only one or potentially no days off during the course of a work week to have any kind of life outside work.
Those times ended in America 65 years ago. Why is it that at Colonial Williamsburg this important historic location believes that it’s okay to treat people like that now? You also heard Agatha say, we recognize that we have to work occasionally. She even volunteered that maybe she would be willing to work one or two, six-day weeks a month. And yet, management continues to hang on to the proposal that they want to be unfettered to force people to work. Forced work. We got rid of that a long time ago in the United States and it needs to end at Colonial Williamsburg.
Maximillian Alvarez: And I mean I’m kind of dumbstruck, honestly, asking this question, but clearly we need to ask it. What is the retort from management? Like how is that an unreasonable request? And how is it possible that they could skip multiple bargaining sessions over this issue? I guess another way of phrasing that is, what is management’s reason for not meeting the union’s demands, not bargaining in good faith? And where do things stand right now with this push to have a mediator involved in the negotiations?
John Boardman: Well the good news is they are coming back to the table on Friday afternoon. So I don’t know what kind of progress, if any, will be made on Friday, but we have gotten them back to the table Friday afternoon. We plan to have a session to continue the bargaining. With respect to the other part of your question, Max, what is the reason that management gives? It’s the same reason that management always gives, that the interests of the business take precedence over any requirement of life outside work, be it family, be it church, be it anything.
That we need you at work and therefore we should have a right to command you to give us your time whenever we need it. That’s forced work. Everybody recognizes that a five-day week is a reasonable requirement. 65 years ago in the U.S. that’s what we determined as a society was acceptable. In our industry we also recognize that occasionally, because of the ebb and flow of occupancy or meal service, that we have to work overtime. That is part of the bargain that we make when we work in this industry.
But it is unreasonable for management to continue to cling to the position that because the business needs it people should give up family life, should give up the health and safety of working in an environment that doesn’t break down their bodies. I don’t understand how anybody in the 21st century can make that argument and keep a straight face. The only thing I can tell you, Max, is this is a historic situation, and maybe they are relying on history and the way people were treated in the past as a legitimate way to claim that they should be treated that way now.
Maximillian Alvarez: I think that’s well put my man. And I want to thank you and Willie and Agatha for taking time to chat with us with everything going on right now. We really, really appreciate it. And I guess I wanted to ask if there were any final notes about what Local 25 is doing, what folks watching and listening around the country can do to show support?
John Boardman: Max, there are a number of things that people can do. First of all, if you can recirculate this broadcast, that would be helpful. Lifting up the voices of Agatha and Willie to others that you know. The other thing you can do is amplify the voice that they have on social media. Local 25 has a presence on Instagram, we have a presence on Twitter. Those are important social feeds and are getting a good deal of coverage.
Lastly, if you really want to do something active, look up Colonial Williamsburg’s main number, call management, leave a message, tell them to respect the workers, tell them to stop forced work and mandatory overtime. And sit back at the table and bargain for a fair contract so these workers can have life outside work and wage levels that can support families. And I thank you very much for your interest in this fight. And wish you the best.
Maximillian Alvarez: So that is John Boardman, executive secretary treasurer of UNITE HERE Local 25. And earlier on this broadcast we were joined by Agatha Hilt, a housekeeper at the Williamsburg Lodge, and Willie Brown, also a houseman at the Williamsburg Lodge. And we thank them all so much for joining us. For everyone watching, this is Maximillian Alvarez at The Real News Network. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support. Become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thank you so much for watching.