While Michigan workers gained attention by protesting their state legislature’s right-to-work law this week, in Illinois, Hyatt Hotels and Resorts housekeepers are aiming for a largely untested (at least in the United States) strategy for influencing their employer’s decisionmaking: the Hyatt workers are trying to persuade Hyatt’s board of directors to add one of their employee housekeepers to its corporate board.
On Tuesday in Chicago, 200 Hyatt housekeepers and other workers demonstrated outside Hyatt headquarters as part of their “Hyatt Hurts” campaign and presented a resolution to Hyatt leadership requesting worker representation on Hyatt’s board.
As members of UNITE HERE, a union representing workers from the fast food, hotel, gaming, textile, and several other industries, the Hyatt workers have alleged that Hyatt holds them responsible for unreasonable amounts of work, including cleaning up to thirty rooms per day. In alignment with these claims, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued Hyatt an ergonomic risk warning on April 25, 2012. In its warning letter, OSHA pointed out that Hyatt requires of its housekeepers “repeated heavy lifting, bending, twisting, elevated and extended reaches, and forceful gripping.”
To help address these issues, the protesters seek to pressure Hyatt into reforming its board by including a worker. They presented the idea to Farley Kern, Hyatt’s Vice President of Communications, on Tuesday, and are waiting for feedback about their proposal. Ms. Kern told RH Reality Check Thursday morning that she did deliver the communication that was given to her on Tuesday to Hyatt’s Corporate Secretary, but that the workers’ resolution did not follow the process outlined in Hyatt’s bylaws, found here.
How much traction will this request to the Hyatt Board of Directors realistically receive? Unsurprisingly, board seats on major corporations like Hyatt’s are typically held by key shareholders with extensive corporate pedigree. Hyatt’s current board consists of corporate leaders including business leader and philanthropist Penny Pritzker (Pritzker also served as the National Finance Chair of President Obama’s 2008 campaign), as well as Goldman Sachs partner Richard A. Friedman.
The practice of workers joining a company’s board or engaging in other power-sharing models, also known as co-determination, has been found in the European Union, Germany, and the United Kingdom, but is largely untested in the United States. Some scholars who have examined co-determination practices have found the effectiveness of employees serving on corporate boards in actually influencing corporate practices hinges on how dense the labor movement in a given country is to start.