This story originally appeared on The Real News Network, a nonprofit news organization connecting viewers to the movements, people, and perspectives that are advancing the cause of a more just, equal, and livable planet.
Despite the cold weather, dozens of workers and their supporters picketed outside the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Baltimore in February, as they had been doing—and have continued to do—for months. The workers are demanding better wages and working conditions, which they say they are owed on principle—but also because of the heavy public subsidies their employer receives.
Andre Eldridge Jr., who has worked at the Marriott Waterfront since 2017, said that many of his colleagues live paycheck to paycheck and have to take on second jobs to make ends meet. “That’s just crazy,” he said.
Vilma Sanchez, a banquet server at the Marriott Waterfront for the past 18 years, said that the job is physically demanding and exhausting, requiring long shifts with few breaks. She believes that workers in such positions deserve higher wages.
The hospitality industry in general, including hotels like the Marriott Waterfront, suffered tremendous job and revenue losses during the pandemic, but it has bounced back in a big way. In fact, Marriott recently announced “record financial results in 2022,” including $2.9 billion paid out to shareholders. Meanwhile, hospitality has rapidly outpaced other industries in the country in terms of new hiring efforts, according to The Wall Street Journal.
However, workers argue that their paychecks are being squeezed in order to further enrich shareholders. At the Marriott Waterfront, workers claim the hotel has been offering smaller annual raises than other similar employers in the area, all while the regional cost of food and housing has increased by over 8% over the past year, as measured by the Consumer Price Index.
According to their union, UNITE HERE Local 7, which represents around 1,700 hotel, gaming, and food service workers across Maryland (down from 3,000 members before the pandemic), employees at the Marriott Waterfront are paid significantly less than other unionized hotels in the region. Banquet servers represented by Local 7 in other area hotels typically make $80,000 to $90,000 a year, while those at the Marriott Waterfront make between $40,000 and $50,000.
Marriott did not respond to an interview request for this story.
Workers at the Marriott Waterfront signed their first contract during the pandemic in November 2021 after voting to unionize in 2018, securing union job protections and a small raise. However, they have not received a raise since then, despite nearly double-digit inflation largely driven by corporate price gouging and higher prices passed onto consumers.
Amy Altvater, a banquet server at the Marriott Waterfront since 2011, said that low pay and decreased hours due to major renovations at the hotel prevent her from planning for the future. She says pay and working conditions have improved since the workers unionized, but the fight is not over.
The hotel charges a 25% service fee to guests, and workers receive tips that can range from $5 to $20 or $25 per hour. The first union contract gave workers the right to keep 51% of those tips, but workers are demanding a greater share.
Workers also claim that low wages force them to rely on public transportation or park far away from the hotel; combined with the fact that their schedules often require them to work late, some workers report being mugged as they walk to bus stops or distant parking lots.
Since opening in 2001, the Marriott Waterfront Hotel has benefited handsomely from public subsidies amounting to tens of millions of dollars’ worth in tax breaks. A Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement with the city has exempted the hotel from $56 million dollars in taxes, according to a Real News analysis.
Tracy Lingo, UNITE HERE Local 7’s staff director, said that the whole justification for the subsidy was to bring good jobs to Baltimore, but the investment needs to filter out to the whole city, not just the harbor communities.
Lingo hopes that a recent contract approved by a 97% margin by workers at the nearby Horseshoe Casino—who are represented by Local 7 and other unions like the United Auto Workers, Teamsters, and IATSE—will pressure the Marriott to increase pay for workers at the Waterfront property. In the new contract, wages for non-tipped casino workers will rise from $14 to $17 within a few years.
“We’re saying to Marriott that we want to get up to the same level as the other hotel workers in Baltimore and workers around the country who have been winning unprecedented contracts right now,” said Lingo. The union resumed negotiations with management on March 20.
At an April 11 demonstration outside the hotel, Lingo said that, after months of bargaining, management finally agreed to some of the concessions sought by workers, including a greater portion of gratuities, much of which is currently pocketed by management.
Lingo says the gains made during the negotiations were both testament to the will of the workers and the power of the public support they have received since they began picketing outside of the Waterfront Hotel in November.
“We’re standing firm in what we believe in and we’re not going to give up until we get what we need,” Altvater said.