Santa Brito, a housekeeper at the Renaissance Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island, was cleaning rooms the day her water broke. “I was afraid,” she said. “I kept working throughout my pregnancy because people said the company was very aggressive.” Raquel Cruz, also a housekeeper, told The Nation that managers at the Renaissance refused to give her and other pregnant women light duty, even when their doctors ordered it. “At thirty to thirty-five weeks, they still want you to do the same job, the same number of rooms. And you have to keep working because otherwise you lose your job.” A week after giving birth, Brito called the hotel. “They told me they didn’t know when I could come back to work.… They told me they couldn’t guarantee my job.” A week later she was fired.
In 2011, the Renaissance gained some unwanted notoriety when Joey DeFrancesco quit his job at the hotel with the help of his bandmates in the What Cheer? Brigade. A video of Joey’s raucous exit has 4.3 million views on YouTube. “They were stealing our tip money, paying us poverty wages, making us work double or triple shifts,” DeFrancesco told The Nation. “When I quit, I didn’t want to go quietly.” Last March, in response to this ongoing cycle of abuse, 75 percent of Renaissance workers signed a petition demanding a fair process to join a union. Since then, they’ve held informational pickets outside the hotel almost every Wednesday. The Renaissance—owned by the Procaccianti Group—has responded with an intense anti-union campaign. Raquel’s husband, Marino Cruz, who also works at the Renaissance, says that as soon as the workers went public with their demands, the managers “started attacking the leaders. Giving them more work. And looking for excuses to fire them.”
On December 4, the workers escalated their campaign by declaring a boycott. “Our bodies suffer from the work yet we live on the edge of poverty,” the workers’ statement read. “We ask all people of good conscience not to patronize the Renaissance Hotel until we are able to work and live with dignity.” The Unitarian Universalist Association, which had intended to have its convention at the Renaissance, canceled 847 reservations. Local politicians voiced their support. And last week, thanks to the combined efforts of students and hotel workers, the Brown University Community Council (BUCC) voted to discourage the Brown community from patronizing the Renaissance.
Since the fall, members of Brown’s Student Labor Alliance (SLA) had been marching with Renaissance workers on the picket lines, providing a welcome burst of energy to the weekly demonstrations. But when the boycott started, students hatched a plan to use Brown’s clout in the Providence hospitality industry—the university brings thousands of parents, alumni and visiting scholars to the city each year—to support the workers’ effort. “We have certain leverage at Brown to transform the everyday lives of working people in our community,” says Mariela Martinez, a senior SLA member who goes by the name Mar, “We have to use it.”
Moving fast, SLA members drafted a resolution in support of the boycott and secured a spot for the issue on the agenda at the next BUCC meeting in February. They invited workers from the Renaissance to attend and share their stories. It’s part of SLA’s job, Martinez says, to force the administration to confront the lived experiences of people who they might otherwise see as nothing more than the service they provide. “It’s really easy to be stuck in an office on College Hill, and not be touched by these stories,” she told The Nation. “What student labor alliance does is bring the human aspect of the workers’ lives and stories to the forefront.”