One of the common chants at the picket outside the Albany Hilton is “Don’t check in, check out! Do the right thing, check out!” (See boycotthiltonalbany.com for explanations of why there is a picket and why you should join it when you have the chance.)
It’s a powerful reminder that even though the power of “ethical consumerism” is often overstated, when it comes to backing up a specific, focused worker-led strike or boycott, it really does matter. The chant does occasionally cause people headed toward the front doors to veer off course and at least come over to find out what’s going on, and sometimes head to another hotel, with the help of the “picket line concierge.” The ongoing boycott by the Hotel Trades Council that has inspired many organizations to move their meetings and trainings out of the hotel as well until it negotiates a fair contract with its workers.
But as a frequent business traveler, I couldn’t help but think that a picket line is insufficient these days to give people who would want not to do business with a hotel that’s under picket the information they need early enough. If most hotel reservations were made on the spot, it would be great. “Oh, look a picket line, let’s not go here.” But these days most hotel reservations are made online.
If you search for Albany Hilton, your top hit ad is for a page about the boycott. Good work on the part of the union.
Only I suspect quite a lot of people are not searching for Albany Hilton on Google. If they need a room, they are going to Priceline, Expedia, Hotel Tonight, etc, and entering Albany, NY and their dates, and scanning the options. And if you do that, you’ll never know that you’re going to show up, prepaid, and find yourself crossing a picket line. Now of course, you shouldn’t do so anyway, but it is a different level of thing to ask someone to not spend money somewhere and to ask them to forgo money already spent, possibly on behalf of an employer. Reservations made through those sites are often non-refundable, especially once you’ve gotten past noon on the day of check in.
It seems to me that if the law says workers must be allowed to physically stand outside an establishment to tell potential customers about its labor problems, that to be relevant in today’s world, a union should also be allowed to force a pop-up on a business’s own website, and a notice on all reselling/reservation sites. It could be a required category, along with hotel amenities and guest rating—“labor status.”
Now, lest anyone want to argue that I’m trying to restrict free enterprise or something, let me remind you that one of the fundamental assumptions upon which neoclassical economics rests is that all parties to any market transaction are privy to perfect and complete information. This is, of course, very far from the case, but it’s really hard to argue on a free market basis against taking a crucial step in that direction.
Of course this would have to be combined with a collective reminder on the part of progressives that crossing picket lines is something You. Do. Not. Do. Once upon a time that was completely understood, as obvious as not listening to Rush Limbaugh or buying a Hummer. But as private-sector union membership declined, that muscle got weaker. We need to exercise it again. If we wanted organized people to balance organized money, respecting a picket line or boycott by organized low-wage workers is more or less a prerequisite.
To quote a column I wrote for Metroland in 2014 about a different hotel boycott,
“It may be a little uncomfortable for many in the progressive and nonprofit worlds to get used to talking about solidarity again, not just collaboration and advocacy. But the rise of service worker labor organizing means it’s essential; if we really mean that we support economic justice and shifting the balance of power in the workplace, it’s time to start getting used to the idea of supporting a campaign to give low-wage workers more power, not just to give them what we think they need.”
Since I don’t get to write labor law just yet, I’ve downloaded the Fair Hotel app, and bookmarked their list of active boycotts to check against. If I ever am involved in the logistics of planning an event at a hotel (which I really hope never happens again, but the fates are cruel sometimes), I will turn to their model protective language to make sure we’re allowed out of our contract if we cancel due to a labor dispute. I hope you’ll join me—online and on the picket line.