Marches by immigrant workers are not an everyday sight in Nashville, Tennessee. But 50 hotel workers and supporters took to the streets June 20 to make visible the conditions facing low-wage workers in this city.
With the support of the worker center Workers’ Dignity, they marched through downtown and led delegations to management at six prominent hotels, handing in petitions calling on the hotels to adopt a Cleaning Workers’ Bill of Rights.
“This is the first time we’ve done something like this,” said Gerson Méndez, a leader in Workers’ Dignity who has worked for multiple Nashville hotels doing housekeeping, laundry, and dishwashing. “But it won’t be the last action if we don’t get any responses.”
The city is undergoing a hotel boom, Méndez says, but hospitality workers — mainly Latinos and African Americans, along with some Arabic-speaking workers — are not seeing the benefits.
“We know many hotels are receiving millions of dollars [in subsidies] from the city government,” he said. “But they are paying us miserable wages, sometimes even $7 an hour, and that’s not enough to provide for our families.” Tennessee does not have a state minimum wage, and preempts cities and counties from passing their own, so the federal minimum wage of $7.25 is in effect.
In a 2016 report, “Hotels Shouldn’t Hurt,” workers documented concerns over high rates of injuries of the job, discriminatory treatment, and systemic wage theft.
“People get in trouble if they have to take off work because they are sick,” says Méndez. “Other times they’ll say you need a doctor’s note, but a lot of times it’s hard for us to go to the doctor, because many of us don’t have health insurance.”
He himself was fired from one hotel job after he was sick one day.
Beating Wage Theft
In contrast to many other cities, Nashville doesn’t have a single unionized hotel.
Many hotels staff their cleaning jobs through temp agencies. “We’ve even heard stories of agencies threatening workers that if they go to the authorities…