A New Yorker cartoon from last year shows a woman walking out from her boss’ office and saying to a co-worker, “That’s the worst humiliation I’ve been subjected to this week.” Or something like that. We laugh, a little nervously, or perhaps wince just a little, because the punchline hits home. Or we breathe a sigh of relief, just in case our workplace isn’t one that subjects us to situations that provoke and inspire cartoonists thus. (It is not an insignificant feature of this cartoon that the workers depicted are women; for more on which, see below.)
For too many workers–whether blue-collar or white–the workplace is where you go to be subjected to behavior that you wish your family would never come to know about. It is where you go to be subjected to naked exertions of power; in the American context, the workplace is where you check the Constitution at the door. If I had a dollar for every time I have had to remind my students in my Philosophy of Law or Social and Political Philosophy classes about this simple fact…well, let’s just say my kids would be able to afford Brooklyn College’s steadily rising tuition quite easily.
The worker who returns home, seething with barely repressed anger, which is then channeled into either intemperate expressions directed against loved ones (“Having a bad day, love?”) or in seeking the bromides of intoxication–‘A quick one after work to take the edge off?”–is a well-established trope of our modern lives. There is a reason why ‘going postal‘ is one of the modern era’s most distinctive phrases. Anyone that has worked for a ‘boss’ and by that I mean, you know, someone that bosses you around, knows why. All too well. Which brings us back to the cartoon.
Consider then, the following story:
Martha Reyes walked in the employee entrance of the Santa Clara Hyatt Regency to the sound of her male colleagues laughing. She believed they were laughing at her. It was “Housekeeping Appreciation Week” at the Hyatt and to celebrate, a digitally altered photo collage of Hyatt Housekeepers’ faces — including Martha’s and her sister Lorena’s — superimposed on bikini-clad cartoon-bodies was posted on a bulletin board at work. She felt humiliated and embarrassed. But she knew her sister Lorena — also a housekeeper at Hyatt — would be even more so. Martha tore the posters of her and her sister down.Then, with management present, a coworker told Martha she needed to return the photos. She refused and said if they wanted it back, they’d have to take her to court. Hyatt management fired Martha and Lorena just a few weeks later.
Martha and Lorena worked at that hotel as housekeepers for 7 and 24 years respectively….On the day she was fired, the HR Director told Martha she was an “excellent worker” and that there hadn’t been any complaints about her. Before the day Lorena was fired, she had never in her 24 years been written up for a single break violation….What happened to the Reyes sisters is just another example of Hyatt’s culture of disrespect for its workers: Hyatt housekeepers have high rates of injury, and in 2011 various state and federal agencies issued 18 citations against Hyatt for alleged safety violations. Hyatt has even lobbied against new laws that would make housekeeping work safer, and has made it a pattern of firing housekeepers only to hire subcontractors everywhere from Manilla [sic] to Boston.
If this story sounds all too familiar, consider signing the petition available at the link above.