Classes, not jail: Protestors cancel 'living wage' action

Guests at the Courtyard Marriott on Main Street are sleeping easier now that protesters who had picketed in front of the hotel every week for more than two straight years have agreed to a ceasefire.

The protesters, organized by a Charlottesville-based non-profit group, opposed low wages paid to hotel employees at the Marriott and other national hotel chains and had been pushing for a "living wage" of $8.65 an hour.

Though the Living Wage objective has not actually been met, an olive branch extended through a new alliance between hotels and Piedmont Virginia Community College (and mediated by the City of Charlottesville) offered enough of a compromise, says Joe Szakos, executive director of the Virginia Organizing Project. The group quietly stopped its protests in October while the details of the new program were being worked out.

"We got people talking, and we've given employees some hope of improving their situations," Szakos says of the early April agreement.

Employees from six local hotels– the Courtyard, the Charlottesville Omni, the Boar's Head Inn, the Cavalier Best Western Inn, the Doubletree Hotel Charlottesville, and the Hampton Inn and Suites on Main Street– will be eligible to participate, space permitting, in a new 10-week class at PVCC.

The hotels will pick up the $265 tuition and pay employees their regular wages for the time spent in class. For the pilot program, all 15 spaces were taken by students who will learn about various aspects of the hospitality industry, starting with computers.

Brett Darlington, general manager at the Courtyard by Marriott, says five of his employees decided to participate, despite the fact there is no guarantee of a raise upon completion of the course. But he says that doesn't mean it won't be worth their while.

"The people who take the initiative create their own value," Darlington says. "They are on their way to furthering their positions at the hotel." He says the hotel benefits too. "The faster we can develop people," he explains, "the more [employees] we will retain."

Michael Denson, restaurant supervisor at the Courtyard's Café 1201, is one of that hotel's five participants. At 38, he's been at the hotel for a year and a half, and in the hospitality industry for nine years. He hopes this course will help push him into "more of a management position than supervisory."

He rejects any suggestion that his employer is new to the employee-improvement efforts.

"Marriott is always working with us to try to help us improve ourselves," he insists. "It's a great place to work."

So would the hotels have provided such training even without pressure from protesters?

Both Darlington and Paul Maher, general manager at the Omni, say the protesters didn't prompt the hotels' decision to join the alliance. "We really thought there was a need," says Maher. "We hope that this program will create interest in a long-term hotel career."

But Charlottesville Mayor Maurice Cox says he thinks the protesting did make the difference, and not just because it "irritated the owners," says Cox. Most importantly, the protest caught the attention of elected officials who "did what we should do."

What the city did was bring the different factions together and facilitate the creation of the course. "The real trick," says Cox, "was relieving the pressure of protests. Lessening the tensions helped me tremendously in negotiations."

And the process of those negotiations, Cox hopes, has set a precedent that can be applied to other industries that often pay low wages, including contracting. "The city is ready and willing to participate," he says. And, he adds, "I would hope it doesn't take a year of protesting to get different stakeholders to the table."

But not everyone is thrilled with the outcome. Andrew Holden, a frequent protester at the Courtyard Marriott (who once chained himself to an Omni elevator), says that while the new class is certainly a step in the right direction, it's not a big enough step by a long stretch. Until every employee is paid the "living wage," which brings a family of four up to the federal poverty level, Holden says, he won't be satisfied.

"They should be paid fairly no matter what," he says. "It's necessary work."

And he says that while the Virginia Organizing Project may have agreed to back off protesting, he can't promise the same. Though his own activist organization, Citizens Against Global Exploitation, focuses more on international "fair trade" practices, if someone comes to him from one of the local hotels with a complaint, he promises, "We'll be right back out there."

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