A dispatch for the “Arguing the World” blog at Dissent magazine.
Published in Dissent.
Conservatives these days walk a tricky line when it comes to wages. On the one hand, they strive to defend the just earnings of capitalist lords of enterprise. On the other, they try hard to foster resentment of any working people who might actually enjoy living wages and decent benefits. In a nutshell: while Wall Street bankers deserve every penny they get, public school teachers—to take just one example—are overpaid mooches who are leeching off society.
The latest hubbub illustrating this strange double standard came after the New York Times reported on a new contract between the New York Hotel Trades Council (UNITE HERE Local 6), representing city hotel workers, and the Hotel Association of New York, representing hotel owners. Over the course of a seven-year contract, hotel housekeepers will have received (cumulatively) a 29 percent raise, with a typical worker going from making around $46,000 per year to earning almost $60,000 per year. The contract also includes good union health insurance and other benefits.
It is a great contract, and members of the union should be congratulated for their work in securing it. But for some conservatives, the idea that a lowly hotel maid could possibly be paid $60,000 is an abomination. Fox News analysts called it a “nightmare.”
There’s plenty to say about their disgust. The first thing to note is the sheer hypocrisy of the right-wing revulsion. Back when we were debating the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, conservatives repeatedly rallied to assert that those making $250,000 per year were not at all rich. Among other absurdities, their apologetics produced the audacious spectacle of a University of Chicago professor with a household income of more than $450,000 per year complaining about how he is just barely getting by, noting that he and his wife “occasionally eat out but with a baby sitter, these nights take a toll on our budget.”
Fox News types worked overtime to back up such sob stories from those they dubbed the “so-called rich.” On the very same program where the right-wingers decried hotel workers’ $60,000 pay as a “nightmare” (Varney & Co.), analyst Chris Cotter previously asserted that, if you’re “in New York or San Francisco,” living on $250,000 is “very, very tough.”
It’s interesting to look a little more at what’s behind this contradiction. The conservatives aren’t really basing their criticism on the idea that New York City hotel rooms are overpriced. To do so would involve examining the price of a room and determining why it costs what it does. You’d have to figure out what percentage of the room rate goes to the workers who actually keep the hotel running, how much to executive compensation, how much to corporate profits, and so forth. Going down that road could lead to some uncomfortable questions, so they avoid it.
Nor are they standing up for the hotel owners, arguing that the new contract violates some tenet of capitalism. It doesn’t. The agreement was a product of employees collectively negotiating with their employers in fair market fashion. There are no government “handouts” here, no idle slackers who are not working for a living. In fact, according to the Times, the hotel owners’ association is very pleased with the contract: “In a constructive and cooperative spirit, we were able to reach this early agreement, which is good for our members, the union, and the city of New York,” association president Joseph E. Spinnato said.
So what’s the conservative objection really about? It comes down to their opinion of what a hotel housekeeper is worth. It’s a matter of principle: heaven forbid that a maid should have decent health insurance and make a living wage—even if that wage is a fraction of what elites themselves have a “very, very tough” time making due with.
I have a dog in this fight. In addition to being generally pro-labor, several family members of mine work with the hotel, casino, and restaurant employees union (although not the local in question). For this reason, I’m thankful to Nathan Newman for his fine Huffington Post commentary, “Why Shouldn’t Housekeepers Make $60,000 Per Year?”
Newman gives some important context. How, he asks, did we get “to the point that it is a bit ‘shocking’ in some sense that workers in what is seen as a low-wage industry are making a living wage?” He answers:
“The disappearance of good working class jobs is the flip side of the anger many feel at income of the richest 1% exploding—that group had a 275 percent “raise” in income between [1979 and 2007] according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The problem is not that the wealthy are getting wealthier, but that they seem to do so at the expense of everyone else seeing wages drop and benefits like health care and pensions disappear.
Which is what makes the story of $60,000 housekeepers such an anomaly in the news. When Local 6, which represents New York City hotel workers, was founded back in 1938, they were actually just a latecomer to a wave of union drives that raised wages and brought labor rights to the workplace for previously low-wage workers in the auto industry, steel, telephone, garment and range of other industries.
But many of those jobs have disappeared to either globalization or technology and, except for a smaller group of high-paying professional service jobs, the decline of union strength has meant many new service jobs pay less than needed to raise a family.
So why do we have $60,000 per year housekeepers in New York City?
Well, you can’t outsource cleaning a room to China and so far no robot can make a bed as well as a human being, so hotel workers have escaped the job destroying forces sweeping other industries.
But you don’t have $60,000 housekeepers in most places in the United States or anything approach it except in a handful of cities like San Francisco and Las Vegas, so the answer goes beyond technological determinism.
The answer is hard-fought organizing by the hotel workers themselves in New York City and the supportive pro-union sentiment of other residents in the city, what was once unapologetically called “solidarity” in this country before the term seemed to get reserved by the elite for only talking about supporting workers in Poland.”
Newman goes on to make solid points about the importance of union density and about the labor movement’s role in fighting inequality in America.
At the outset of this post, I framed the right-wing stance on wages as something of a curious contradiction. But actually, this whole thing is not all that complicated. Stripped down, it’s just class warfare, waged by the rich. Unless we have institutions that can repel the assault and advance the interests of working people, our democratic society as a whole stands to suffer.