In early July, Thomas Bradley signed up for a shift at the Laguna Cliffs Marriott Resort & Spa in Orange County, California. He did so via Instawork, an app-based staffing company through which workers can pick up temporary shifts.
Upon arriving at the hotel, Bradley was greeted with a picket line. He hadn’t realized that the permanent workers were on strike; Instawork’s job posting hadn’t mentioned it.
The Laguna Cliffs employees are UNITE HERE Local 11 members, some of the fifteen thousand workers who are negotiating a contract with the Coordinated Bargaining Group, which represents more than sixty properties in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. After the contract expired on June 30, the union initiated a rolling wave of strikes across Southern California on the weekend of July 4. The day Bradley showed up for his shift, the strike had come to Laguna Cliffs.
When he realized that he was being used as a strikebreaker, Bradley decided to join the union members on the picket line rather than work his scheduled shift. He felt it was simply the right thing to do.
“If you see something that you know is wrong, what are you gonna do? You’re gonna try to fix it,” explained Bradley. “I did what I felt was right. These are people’s jobs and I didn’t want to take somebody’s job away.”
But Instawork users are rated using a five-star system, and the app marked Bradley as a “no-show” for his shift at Laguna Cliffs. He had signed up for shifts at other area hotels, but he said that Instawork quickly canceled those assignments. On July 12, after he again joined a picket line, this time at the Hilton Anaheim hotel, the company suspended his account. According to Local 11, the suspension was only lifted when reporters reached out to Instawork about Bradley’s case.
The union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against Instawork over the case, as well as several additional cases at other hotels documented by the local, arguing that the app’s automatic penalization of workers who engage in protected concerted activity constitutes a violation of labor law.
“[This] automated policy and practice interferes with workers’ exercise of their rights,” reads the NLRB complaint. The hotel’s owner, a fund associated with the University of California, and Aimbridge Hospitality Group, the property’s management company, are also named in the filing.
Asked by Context to comment on the NLRB complaint, Instawork, which was recently valued at $700 million, declined, citing ongoing “legal matters.” However, company spokesperson Meghan Hermann told the publication that the app does not “retaliate against [workers] for engaging in protected activity, whether related to political and/or union activity or otherwise.”
The threats posed to employees by employers’ use of new technology are at the heart of the double strike currently being waged by film and television workers. Bradley’s case highlights yet another technological danger facing the working class: the use of automated management to not only streamline the replacement of striking workers, but to punish those replacements should they decide to exercise their own rights.
In a memo filed in October of last year, NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo warned of the dangers automated management poses for workers.
“Recent technological advances have dramatically expanded employers’ ability to monitor and manage employees within the workplace and beyond” wrote Abruzzo. “As more and more employers take advantage of those new capabilities, their practices raise a number of issues under the Act. An issue of particular concern to me is the potential for omnipresent surveillance and other algorithmic-management tools to interfere with the exercise of Section 7 rights by significantly impairing or negating employees’ ability to engage in protected activity and keep that activity confidential from their employer, if they so choose.”
In response to Instawork’s alleged retaliation against Bradley, Laguna Cliffs’s permanent workforce began an unfair labor practice (ULP) strike on Monday, July 24. It may be the first such strike against the use of automated management tools to replace striking workers.
“The first ULP alleges that the hotel and Instawork have violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by cancelling shifts to be worked by Thomas Bradley in response to this employee’s protected concerted activity and/or union activity,” wrote Local 11 copresident Kurt Petersen in a letter addressed to management at Laguna Cliffs, Instawork, and Aimbridge Hospitality, as well as several members of University of California leadership.
Substantiating the concerns outlined in Abruzzo’s memo, potentially serving as the case to set a new standard against electronic surveillance and algorithmic management in motion, Local 11’s second ULP charge alleges that the hotel and Instawork “have violated the NLRA through a policy and practice of penalizing employees for engaging in protected concerted activities and/or union activity by means of a ‘gig’ application and algorithm which, among other actions, automatically disqualifies workers from future scheduled work when they miss a single shift, even when the employee’s reason for not completing the shift is their participation in activity protected by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.”
The Laguna Cliffs employees, who are predominantly Latino, say that they object to the use of black workers like Bradley as strikebreakers. This is a tactic with a long history in the United States, where racial divides in labor are used to strengthen an employer’s hand.
That strategy backfired at Laguna Cliffs. Employees point out that the luxury hotel, like many others in Southern California, has attributed the paucity of black workers in the industry to a lack of qualified applicants. Yet when faced with a strike, the employer had no problem finding black workers capable of filling positions.
“The company always does that,” said Emilse Pineda, a forty-seven-year-old housekeeper at Laguna Cliffs, via a translator. “There are no African Americans at the hotel. There are no LGBTQ people that we know of at the hotel. But the day that the app brought in workers, suddenly they could bring them in.”
Pineda is mentioned in the third ULP charge from Local 11, which alleges Laguna Cliffs violated the NLRA by “encouraging, sanctioning, and/or failing to take reasonable steps to prevent and address violence by hotel guests against persons engaged in peaceful picketing during a labor dispute, and (2) failing and refusing to provide information requested by the Union to investigate acts of violence against persons engaged in peaceful picketing during a labor dispute.”
The letter states that “Pineda was punched in the head by a hotel guest who yelled at her, calling her a sexist epithet before walking back into the hotel,” and that the hotel has refused to respond to the union’s request for information to identify the guest responsible for the incident, much less levy consequences against said guest.
“I’ve been a leader in the labor movement for thirty-two years,” Local 11 copresident Ada Briceño told me. “I’m inspired by the energy of room attendants and dishwashers striking to make sure that we have justice for other workers.”
Bradley, who is forty-one years old, said that he has worked in hospitality since he was eighteen, studying culinary arts at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College. But he has never been able to secure a permanent hotel job.
“In my years in the industry, I always felt like I was singled out,” said Bradley. “I always tried to figure out, ‘Where’s everybody else who looks like me?’ I had to go to school even more to try to understand whose fault it is: mine or theirs? I took sociology, political science, and humanities to figure out the roots of these microaggressions, and I’m still trying to figure that out.”
He is far from the only black worker who has had trouble breaking into the industry. African American employment in hotels has declined in recent decades. In response to the use of gig-economy apps like Instawork to recruit strikebreakers, Local 11 submitted a new proposal that would require employers to offer permanent jobs to the workers brought in during the work stoppage. Petersen told the Los Angeles Times that the employers “walked out” of the bargaining session shortly after that proposal was introduced.
Boxed into precarity by the industry’s discriminatory practices, Bradley was homeless and living in his car when he arrived at Laguna Cliffs for the shift he’d picked up through Instawork. When he lost his subsequent Instawork shifts for standing with the strikers, Local 11 found him a hotel room. As he was sleeping inside the room on the night of July 17, his car was repossessed.
“It was at two in the morning and without warning,” Bradley said. “All my belongings were gone.”
“It’s outrageous that we’re in a situation where folks are being penalized like that,” Briceño said. “It’s also very difficult to hear a company say that they can’t find qualified black workers but the moment that we strike, suddenly they can find people to come work. It’s outrageous to know that it’s okay for them to hire black workers to substitute other workers, but not to give them a pension and benefits to sustain their families long term.”
Briceño noted that the ongoing strike which Bradley had been hired to help break is a necessity borne of the desperate state in which many of her members now live, with rising inflation and the skyrocketing cost of housing in the area plunging even union workers into economic insecurity.
“There’s a new thing that I’m hearing from my workers: they are sharing, by shift, rooms in a house,” said Briceño. “If you work in the PM, you get to sleep there in the AM, and if you work in the AM, you get to sleep in the PM. They actually rent a room by shift. It’s incredible that we are in this crisis in this country.”
The union is proposing an immediate $5-an-hour raise for members, with $3-an-hour raises for the subsequent years of the three-year contract. Currently, the contract stipulates a $20 hourly minimum for housekeepers and $22 an hour for dishwashers and cooks. The workers have also proposed improved pension and health care benefits.
“It is 100 percent affecting me because my money is not enough to pay for all of my obligations,” Pineda told me when I asked her about the union’s proposals. “We pay $3,000 in rent, and that is the most affordable that we were able to find. Do you think that I can afford everything that I need on my wage?”
Local 11 is also pushing for legislative fixes to the area’s housing crisis. The union says it gathered some 40 percent of signatures on the petition to put the successful Los Angeles “mansion tax” on the ballot last year, and it is backing the Responsible Hotels Ordinance, which would levy a 7 percent tax on guests staying at unionized hotels to fund workforce housing, as well as the use of vacant hotel rooms to temporarily house the homeless. At the bargaining table, the union has asked the hotels to support the measure, which they currently strongly oppose.
In response, the employers filed a ULP against Local 11, alleging that the union bargained in bad faith by striking over “nonmandatory” subjects (despite there being a long history of unions doing exactly that).
“We are living in a time when people are holding on by a fingernail,” said Pineda. “The companies would be nothing without the employees: the heart of the hotel is housekeeping and the only way that the hotel has a good name is the work that housekeeping does. But we don’t have the benefits that we deserve: something as simple as health insurance, which we need because we’re exposed to all kinds of fluids at work.”
When we spoke on July 24, Bradley had just finished his orientation at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel & Suites in downtown Los Angeles, the only hotel that reached a tentative agreement before the June 30 contract deadline. Assisted by Local 11, he has now secured a union job in the hotel’s ballroom as a banquet runner. In the meantime, he has been convincing other Instawork users not to cross hotel workers’ picket lines, passing their information along to Local 11 to help them enter its jobs pipeline so they, too, can secure union positions.
“There are tons of other people that look just like me who are looking for a job,” said Bradley. “They probably went to school for the same thing as me. People go and get educated for one reason, and then it turns out that these jobs are not for them and it’s like that for a reason. It doesn’t have to be that way. How do you spend your whole lifetime doing something and you’re not making a living out of it? How are you in poverty? That’s wrong.”
In WhatsApp group messages viewed by Jacobin, Instawork users expressed concerns that joining the strike would jeopardize their standing on the app. The messages underline the dangers of algorithmic management: users note that the loss of shifts would be automatic and that they would have to hope to persuade the app’s chat support to reinstate their accounts, even if a suspension was a violation of labor law.
“I want them to lead themselves,” said Bradley of his recent organizing. “I want them to get everything they want instead of fighting for pennies. I was living on the edge and things were very difficult for me — every day was a rainy day, when it’s always sunny here. But I just chose to do the right thing. Hopefully other people will do the same. It’s nothing special on my end.”