In November last year, the Hilton Hotel in Sydney, Australia closed down for a $400 million face-lift. It was scheduled to re-open in 18 months time.
Several weeks earlier, the Hilton management told shocked employees that they were all going to be fired. Due to a loophole in the law, the maximum redundancy benefit was going to be only eight weeks pay (instead of the usual 16 weeks). Many employees would receive no redundancy pay at all.
None of the workers were guaranteed that they could have their jobs back when the five star hotel re-opens in 2004. And this despite the fact that many worked at the hotel for over 10 years, with some working there for more than 20 years.
Not only was the Hilton management dictating inhuman terms to its workers, but it was refusing to talk to the workers’ union — the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union (LHMU).
At this point, the LHMU decided to launch an ambitious world-wide protest campaign aimed at forcing the Hilton management to the bargaining table.
They asked for the assistance of LabourStart (http://www.labourstart.org) — the online trade union news service which I founded in 1998 — and together we created an easy-to-use online campaigning tool called “ActNOW”. People visiting the special web page we set up could send a message to Oded Lifschitz, the hotel manager, which read in part:
“We are all very disappointed to hear that after several meetings with your hotel workers and the LHMU Hotel Union you have not found it in your heart to come to a decent deal with your low-waged workers.
“This decision doesn’t just reflect badly on the Sydney Hilton Hotel — but also reflects negatively on the world-wide Hilton brand.
“Surely some part of the $400 million renovation could have been used to ensure that all your workforce was treated equitably when it comes time to the shut down of your upmarket hotel, for the 18 month renovation program. . . .
“I will try to make contact with the management of the nearest Hilton Hotel and tell them that I am not impressed with what is happening at the Sydney Hilton.
“I will tell them that your actions are hurting the Hilton Hotel brand across the world.”
Within hours, hundreds of email messages began pouring into Lifshitz’s email inbox. For a businessman who relies on email, this became an intolerable situation. He couldn’t change his email address, or simply stop checking the incoming messages — there might well be important business-related messages there. And every time Mr. Lifshitz turned on his PC, it froze up as hundreds more messages poured in.
After a few days, Lifshitz contacted the LHMU union. He asked them first of all, to stop flooding his email inbox. The union agreed — and we temporarily shut down the campaign. When the Hilton management even then refused to discuss new terms, the union asked us to turn on the tap again, which we did. Hundreds more emails arrived.
In the end, three thousand emails reached the Sydney Hilton — the second most successful online campaign LabourStart had ever participated in. And the campaign went way beyond emails — many contacts were made with organizations far and wide which could put pressure on the Hilton. Progressive clergymen, trade unionists in many other countries, and even the Rev. Jesse Jackson, rallied behind the Hilton workers’ cause.
On 1 November — seven weeks after the launch of the online campaign — the union issued a press release announcing victory.
“Sydney’s 500 Hilton Hotel workers have won a magnificent victory,” they wrote, “and they owe it to the more than 3000 people from around the world who joined a cyber-picket line, sending protest e-mails to the Hilton Hotel chain’s top executives.”
The Hilton management agreed to increase workers’ redundancy pay from eight weeks to twelve weeks or more, for the majority of their workforce who have loyally worked at the hotel for at least ten years . In addition, the hotel agreed to pay between one to five weeks retrenchment money to all its casual workers – who were originally going to be paid nothing.
Above all, the Hilton chain — which has seven other hotels in Australia — reached agreement with the union, and accepted the LHMU as the representative of its employees.
One union leader hailed this as a “magnificent victory” and said that “in talks with the union the Hilton management acknowledged that this campaign – especially the e-mails from around the world – had bite.”
Online campaigns are no substitutes for picket lines, boycotts, strikes and other tried-and-true methods of working class struggle. But they are a valuable addition to the labor movement’s arsenal, as proven by the victory in Sydney.