Jews Rally in Solidarity with Local 217 at the Stamford Hilton

“There is only one boss, and that is God above.”

Avigayil Halpern
July 10, 2018
Photo: Avigayil Halpern

SPIRITS WERE HIGH outside the Stamford Hilton on Sunday night as members of the Jewish community joined members of Unite Here Local 217 to picket. Workers at the Stamford Hilton in Connecticut—a popular venue for Jewish conferences because of its proximity to New York City and familiarity with the requirements of kashrut and Shabbat—voted 110-5 in favor of the union in December. When contract negotiations had not progressed appropriately by May, they called for a boycott.

The Hilton has long been a major site for Jewish events across denominations, but is particularly favored by traditionally-observant groups because the hotel still offers manual room keys (many believe that the magnetic key cards used by most hotels violate the laws of Shabbat). The Jewish groups gathered with the workers on Sunday were in part there to make a specific appeal of solidarity rooted in communal values.

But outside of those who came in from New York for the rally, very few people from Stamford’s local community, Jewish and otherwise, turned out. Nina Sherwood, a Democratic socialist who was elected to Stamford’s Board of Representatives in 2017, expressed dismay at the absence of other local lawmakers. “You can’t possibly be ‘making things better for the people’ if something like this is happening in your city and you’re not actively supporting it.”

The union has made progress in their negotiations in advocating for higher wages and increased job stability, and according to Ted McCallum, the hotel’s general manager, the hotel has agreed to cap the number of rooms housekeepers clean at 16 (one of the major union demands was to reduce the workload of housekeepers, who they say had previously been required to clean almost 40 rooms a day). But the union’s fight still isn’t over.

Lucy Carr, a 22-year-old employed by the Hilton for just over a year, cites overwork as a major issue at the hotel. After the department responsible for answering phone calls was eliminated, her job at the front desk grew increasingly stressful. “Especially with your managers yelling at you if you make a tiny mistake,” she said, “I would get home and feel like I had nothing left I could do but sleep.” Restoring the department is a demand of the union that has not yet been met.

Uniting many union members is a demand prominent on the national stage: affordable and quality health insurance. Currently, on weeks when workers aren’t assigned enough hours, some must pay more than their salary in order to receive the insurance plan on offer, resulting in a negative wage. According to Robert Tweedie, who has worked at the hotel for 24 years, conditions have been declining for several years. Health insurance premiums have gone down since the union was formed, he said, but not enough. “Now that we’ve formed a union, they’re trying to straighten up everything. But it’s a little too late.”

Sunday night’s Jewish solidarity rally included speeches, songs, and chants, as well as a brief mincha service. The gathering opened with two songs by the chorus from Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, New York’s LGBTQ synagogue. The chorus was at the hotel that weekend for the annual North American Jewish Choral Festival, hosted by the Zamir Choral Foundation. In an email to the Jewish Labor Committee, which helped organize the solidarity rally, Zamir leadership said that the foundation had “informed the hotel’s management that any future patronage of the hotel hinges on the successful conclusion of the negotiations.”

Other speakers from the Jewish community included Liana Kallman, an organizer with the NYC Community Alliance for Worker Justice and member of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Jewish Labor Committee executive director Jonathan Rosenblum, and Rabbi Ethan Tucker, President and Rosh Yeshiva at the Hadar Institute. Hadar, a traditional egalitarian Jewish learning center based on the Upper West Side, of which I am an alumna, has held their alumni reunion at the Hilton for many years, and has been a leader in building solidarity and support for the workers. In February, before the call to boycott, Hadar invited workers to speak to the conference, and many participants sported Local 217 buttons throughout the weekend.

Rabbi Tucker praised the hotel workers’ yearly commitment to helping create a sacred space by going above and beyond to meet Hadar’s religious needs, and affirmed that “we are here today again for our religious needs.” He was answered with whoops and cheers from the crowd when he continued, “the Bible, the Torah, tells us that there is only one boss, and that is God above. God above demands dignity for workers.”

Hotel workers responded enthusiastically to the religious elements of the protest, answering “amen,” and “God bless you,” to references to Jewish text and prayer. It was powerful for the invocation of Rabbinic law to build solidarity rather than foment division, both as a unifier within Jewish communities and beyond them, in the context of the Christian-dominated discourse of the religious left.

Charlie Carnow, a Hadar alum and Unite Here organizer from California, has been a driving force behind organizing the Jewish community behind the Hilton workers. Carnow, who took vacation time from work to travel to the East Coast and organize with Local 217, spoke about the Three Weeks, the liturgical period some Jews are currently observing, which leads up to Tisha B’Av, when Jews mourn for the loss of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

“The Jewish sages said that this destruction was caused by baseless hatred,” said Carnow. “People did not unite even in the face of a common oppressor. This is the strategy of all oppressors, to divide us and make us forget our common humanity.”  

This piece has been updated to reflect a source’s current name and pronouns.

Avigayil Halpern is a rising senior Judaic Studies major at Yale.