On June 11th, Julia Levy from bluestockings had the opportunity to sit down with two Providence hotel workers, Miguelina Almanazar and, later, Santa Brito. Both women have been integral to the fight for minimum wage increase in the city of Providence to $15 an hour. Miguelina and Santa have been organizing with UniteHere, the local food and hotel service workers union, to fight for better pay and treatment for hotel workers in Providence.
With victory in plain sight for the hotel workers, the RI House defined the state budget such that it ruled out municipal autonomy to determine their own minimum wages, effectively squashing the collective efforts of the RI hotel worker minimum wage campaign. There were subsequent hunger strikes (in which interviewee Santa Brito participated!) to gravely illustrate to the state’s control over the working-class. This action effectively shamed the General Assembly into raising the state’s minimum wage to $9 (This still does not reflect nicely on Rhode Island, who’s close neighbor, Massachusetts just raised theirs to $11).
We are publishing these interviews in solidarity with Unite Here and the Providence Hotel Workers fighting for economic justice. While these interviews took place two weeks before a whirlwind of setbacks, we believe they are still valuable and indicative of the commitment of our local heroes and activists for economic justice.
A special thank you to Miguelina and Santa, for so openly speaking with us, and to Andrew Tillett-Saks of UniteHere for helping with translation and facilitation of these interviews. In the words of the women we spoke with, “¡Si se puede!”
Julia Levy: For which hotel(s) in Providence have you worked?
Miguelina Almanazar: I’ve been a housekeeper for 9 years at the Omni Hotel.
J: Can you describe a typical day for you at the Omni Hotel?
M: Well, we clean 15 rooms a day. We get there in the morning. We get free breakfast at the hotel, which is something we fought for. We work pretty comfortably. We work at a comfortable pace because we have rights at this hotel. We have a Union at this hotel.
J: Was it different before, when the Westin owned the Omni?
M: It’s a little different. The new company seems to have more requests; they demand a little bit more of us. But, more or less the same.
J: Have you ever encountered any kind of mistreatment during your time at the Omni?
M: No, I haven’t. The managers can sometimes be a little distant and a little callous, but I have never seen any mistreatment in the Omni hotel because we are unionized.
J: Have there ever been any issues with maternity leave, as there were at some of the other hotels in Providence?
M: At the Omni, no. At other hotels, yes.
J: So, just doing the calculations, with the average worker making around $9.50 an hour, it comes out to not even being a proper living wage for a family of four in Providence. If you feel comfortable discussing it at all, have you struggled to provide for your family?
M: For us, not really, because I make, and we make, close to or above $15 an hour. For the other hotels they have tons of difficulties and tons of obstacles in providing for their families, because the wages are so low. That’s why we’re in a big struggle, a big fight, right now, to bring up the other hotel workers in the city. Before I worked in this hotel, I was working for $6 or $7 minimum wage, and it was impossible to provide for my family. When I got a job at the hotel, my whole life changed, because I started earning a decent wage, and now I was able to do things as a single mother that I couldn’t do before. As a single mother, you have all kinds of responsibilities, and before I had a lot of difficulty handling them all, and now I can. One of the main things is that I have been able to pay for an education for my children. That is the most important thing— education.
J: As you were saying when we were talking before, your children are in college or they have graduated?
M: One is in University and the other is at Johnson & Wales.
J: And, how did you get involved in the fight for more dignified pay and treatment for hotel workers?
M: I had to get involved, I had no choice, because the other hotel workers are workers, are women, just like us. We have to help out our community. And also if we don’t pull them up, they’re going to try to pull us down in our hotel. The fact of the matter is that all of us, the leaders of this fight, we’re almost all volunteers. We work all day, and then we volunteer because we have no choice but to go and pull up the rest of our community, to pull up women just like us.
J: What different roles have you taken on, I know you mentioned collecting signatures? What has the experience been like for you?
M: The experience has been great. We feel really good helping out the community and women like us. We feel very united and connected with the community when we are helping. And, they are single mothers just like us, we have been in their place, and we feel like we have to do something. We’re collecting signatures right now, so I have collected quite a bit of signatures to try to pass the minimum wage. I constantly struggle with my friends, my coworkers, my family, my community to come out and support. I have done a lot of organizing in the houses of non-union workers, to encourage the women to join the fight and to not have fear. I have also visited, and confronted and talked to, quite a few of the Rhode Island politicians to come out in support of the workers in the hotels.
J: So, there was just the preemption law introduced in the RI state legislature, considered by many as a response to the favorable voter attitudes towards your cause. What was that like for you to hear the news of the introduction of that law?
M: The truth is, we were expecting it because this is what the state and the state politicians always do. Whenever we’re asking for something, they always take the side of the rich. When we’re entering bankruptcy, they raise the taxes on our houses. When something is wrong, the minority has to pay for that. They never want to invest in the minority. They never want to invest in poor people, and that is what we are. So the truth is, we were expecting it, and so it doesn’t have us down. We are going to keep fighting it, and we are going to change the law.
J: You seem optimistic! My last question is, what do you expect is to come from the fight?
M: We’re going to win. We’re going to collect as many signatures as we need to get and then bring them back to them. We are a lot, and they are a few.
J: Thank you so much.
M: Thank you. Thank you for being interested in our fight. Si se puede!