At The Forefront: Meet Santa, Providence Hotel Worker and Organizer

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 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!”

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Julia Levy: Which hotels in Providence have you worked for?

Santa Brito: I worked in the Marriott Downtown and in the Renaissance, where I work now.

J: And for how long have been working at the two hotels?

S: For six years in total.

J: What does a typical workday look like for you?

S: Well, we clean the rooms, we clean the bathrooms, we have to vacuum everything, and we are doing this with the constant supervision of bosses who are overlooking us and checking every little bit of our work. It’s incredibly physical work. It’s truly horrible. It destroys our bodies; t’s already destroying my body. We have injuries all the time to our bodies, and this causes a lack of morale, a lack of physical health, and it just really destroys us.

J: Are there any sort of health care benefits, or anything, provided to you all?

S: They offer it, but it’s actually a benefit that does not provide anything for us because when we actually go to the doctor, they don’t cover anything, and the bills that we get are so high for the little that they do cover. It’s worthless. We get injuries from the work all the time because it is so physical. What happens, though, is that we go to the doctor and we’re not able to use the health care that they offer because it’s so expensive. And we’re not able to get the state offered programs for worker’s compensation because the company always refuses to take responsibility for the injuries. So myself and all these other women, we have all of these injuries, and we have no recourse to really solve them. Our bodies are deteriorating day by day.

Look at me right now. I’m really tired. It’s because I have carpal tunnel in my arm from the job. And I don’t sleep at night because the pain is so bad. And the company I work for, at the Renaissance hotel, doesn’t want to take responsibility for the injuries even though we work really, really hard for them.

It’s not just this company; it’s in other hotels all over the city and in other cities. It’s like this where the job is destroying women’s bodies and the companies mistreat the workers. The chemicals that we have to work with cause damage to our bodies. Specifically in the Renaissance they’ve been causing damage to our arms. They cause rashes on our arms and we are inhaling them all the time. So, we think they are doing damage to our lungs. One of the women got cancer and we don’t know if that is related. We’re dealing with these really strong chemicals all day long and there’s nobody looking out for use to make sure they are safe, and we are having problems.

And so we are regularly suffering from serious illnesses, at a disproportionate rate, and the company doesn’t care at all. They think we are nobody, even though at the end of the day we are the ones that bring them clients. We’re very important to the hotel, yet they don’t value us at all. They don’t think we deserve a decent living. We don’t understand why they don’t value us at all when we make the hotel run.

So we’re in a struggle right now because, at the end of the day, we need to change the conditions of the housekeeping department. It’s an extremely mistreated group of workers, and we’re going to change that. We’re in fight because we need changes here. We know it’s possible because other hotel workers in other cities enjoy a different quality of life and opportunities that we don’t have, so we want that too. The wage that we make is not a lot, it’s really very little especially for such high risks. It’s an extremely small wage.

J: So with such high risk and such low wages, how does the average hotel worker in PVD make a living wage? Especially if they are providing for a family. If you feel comfortable discussing it, in what ways have you struggled to provide for your son and yourself? In what ways do you just struggle to get by?

S: It’s incredibly difficult, and the truth is that there is no other word for it than it’s a crisis. It’s a crisis for all of us. We’ve got so many bills to pay that we can’t. For example, I’m in a crisis right now because I have to pay the mortgage for this house and I can’t. Right now, I’m having to take loans from banks just so I can cover the necessities of the house. At the end of the day, what we make does not even cover the basic necessities of our lives. Much less living in luxury, we cannot even cover the basic things we need. It’s misery. The truth is, it’s a slap in the face. I leave my family every day, I leave Jared, to go to work, and I don’t even bring back money that can cover the necessities of my family.

 J: Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, from the average $9.50 wage of hotel workers, resulting in an additional 8-10 thousand dollars a year. In what ways could this money help provide for those basic necessities, paying your mortgage and everything like that?

S: If we win $15 an hour, I will be able to cover the basic necessities of my life. Right now I can’t even afford things my child and house need. If we jump from $8 or $9 to $15 at least we will be able to cover the necessities.

J: And how did you get involved in the fight for more dignified pay?

S: Because they fired me, they fired me when I was pregnant. When I went to give birth, the company made a decision to fire me. Because of this, I’ve always been united with the idea of fighting for better conditions— to make sure we improve the lives of all the workers, but especially to improve the lives and treatment of pregnant workers.

J: And so, you were working full-time when you were pregnant?

S: I worked up until my water broke in the hotel. I went to the hospital in my uniform. And, the company still fired me. This is the reason I’m in the fight. So, I’m going to keep fighting no matter what. I’m going to keep defending the rights and the conditions for every worker.

J: Wow. So, what different roles have you played throughout the fight?

S: Well, first of all, I organize my coworkers, and I organize them on a daily basis to make sure we remain united. But, also, I’ve gone and go to workers of other hotels to talk to them about organizing too. And, you know I find, and I really enjoy talking to them, that they are as desperate and mistreated as we are in my hotel. I great satisfaction in informing and educating them about how we can change it and how we can organize like my workers in the Renaissance are doing. We’re all going through the same stuff, I find.

J: How do you feel about the preemption introduced by the state legislature, which is considered by many as a response to your organizations efforts in gaining a lot of people on your side for the $15 minimum wage?

S: Well, I feel really good that the community has come to recognize our efforts in fighting for a decent wage and I feel that the community in general is behind us. I feel really good about that. But the law, the truth is I feel bad about it. I feel upset about it because it’s basically the politicians of the state telling me, as a worker, and my coworkers, as workers, that we don’t have rights and we don’t have the right to a decent living, which is all we’re fighting for.

And the people that are trying to pass it—they don’t even see the face of the suffering of the people of the state that they are supposed to represent. The truth is, I’m really mad, because these are people that are supposed to be providing for us, and in fact what they’re doing is denying us opportunity when we’re just trying to provide for ourselves. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to provide for our families and now they’re just trying to block us. And, the truth is, that if they don’t do their job and provide for us, then we are going to have no other option but to take to the streets to try and reclaim the rights they are trying to take from us.

They’re basically going to obligate us to take other extreme measures, just because we have to win basic necessities and basic standards of living for our families. And this is why we are fighting, because politicians and wealthy people like this are blind and they believe that we are all okay and we have a decent standard of living. But it’s a lie. As workers, we are not okay. And they keep telling lies to themselves and to the public that we are okay, and we’re not. Especially in hotels, us workers are really, really mistreated and exploited. And they need to understand that this is not a game that we’re playing. This is a reality that we’re living. Especially in the hotels, the conditions are awful. They need to understand that.

And so, for all the politicians and the lawmakers, they need to help us, because all we’re asking for is opportunity and they’re trying to deny us the opportunity to live these lives. They need to realize we are suffering and please give us an opportunity to live decently. They need to consider that all workers need a decent standard of living, and right now they are not.

J: What do you expect is to come in this historic fight?

S: Well, look, we’ll win if we pressure them enough to do it. We’ll be able to achieve the stability in our lives that we want, if we continue to fight and pressure them. But that’s the only way.

J: Is there anything else you’d like to say on record?

S: I just want to say that this is not a game. This is a fight out of necessity for us. This is more or less a fight for our lives. And it’s something that we have to do try and win some respect. I want to say to every community, every other worker, every student, and every organization: Please, please support us because your voices all matter in the city. And the truth is that we’re not going to win alone. The only way we’re going to succeed is if we have the support of the entire community.

J: And you have our support. Thank you for doing this interview.

S: No, no, thank you.

 

To find out more about this important fight for social justice, and to sign a petition to local politicians, follow these links:

http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/5481085

http://mobile.businessweek.com/articles/2014-06-16/democrats-are-killing-a-15-miniumum-wage-in-providence

http://www.rifuture.org/hunger-strikers-helped-win-9-minimum-wage-for-all.html

http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/raise-the-minimum-wage-44

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