Table of Contents


Working conditions before the first contract

The strike of 1912

The 1937 organizing committee

The Hotel Trades Council signs the first contract

The Story of the First Contract

First contract struck first blow against job bias

The victory of the first contract signed 72 years ago was also the union's first victory in its long fight against job discrimination. The men who led the successful organizing drive of the late 1930s understood that discrimination was an evil, and that it was damaging to the interests of all hotel workers.

They demanded and won the insertion of an anti-discrimination clause in the first contract. It has been in every contract since.

On the basis of this clause, step-by-step gains have been won over the years. They began immediately and were recorded with particular pride by the union. An early annual report to the membership says:

"As often happens, African-Americans found themselves the special butt of discrimination and this the Hotel Trades Council has continually fought. It was at the city's best-known hotel that the union was able to break down these bars the same week it secured the first signature. Three days after the hotel had agreed to deal with the Council, it signed on its first African-American employee. Many have been employed there since."

The union's determination to wipe out job discrimination is an essential part of the background to the Industry Training Program, the aim of which is to enable present hotel workers to advance into better jobs on the basis of equal opportunity.

Compared with the working conditions set forth in the contract of today, that first settlement doesn't seem like much. But the true comparison is with the conditions prevailing before it. Put yourself in the position of a hotel worker in the years before the union was organized and the first contract negotiated. If you were a maid, your working conditions were like those described in a 1935 report of the New York State Department of Labor. In one New York City hotel, the department said, "Maids work from 10 to 12 hours a day. Their pay is $30 a month (about $7 a week.) Each maid has to attend to 30 rooms." And about another hotel: "Maids work 11 hours a day, 7 days a week, and have no time off for lunch."

Whatever your job, you got it, most likely by paying a fee to an employment agency. The fees were exorbitant. And many of the agencies were racket outfits which had deals with the straw bosses in the hotels and split fees with them. You might be fired after a few weeks to make room for another worker because the greater turnover, the more fees to be split.

Particularly if you were a waiter or bellman (bellboy you would have been called then), you found that your fee-paying never ended. Headwaiters, bell captains and other bosses made extra money by extorting a weekly payment from the employee in return for keeping him on the job. This practice was known as the kickback.


You worked six days a week, seven days some weeks. If the boss said to work on the seventh day, you came in. Maybe you got a day off for it, if the boss remembered or felt like it. More often he didn't. Hours ran from 60 to 72 a week – often in split shifts that made any outside life next to impossible. Overtime hours – plenty. Overtime pay – none. Vacations – unheard of.

What were prices like back then?

On January 18, 1939 the Taft Grill was advertising lunch for 65 cents, dinner $1, Saturday dinner $1.25. At the swankier Casino-on-the-Park, Essex House, dinners started at $1.75. A clothing chain was offering men's suits for $22.50 (10 payments and no charge for alterations). Men's shoes were $4 at Thom McAnn's. A department store listed "Women's casual coats, $18." Fur-trimmed coats were going at $43.95, and all-fur coats at $98. A market chain asked 23 and 25 cents a pound for "fancy milk-fed fowl." Eggs were 25, 31 and 35 cents a dozen. Coffee was five cents by the cup and "2 pounds for 29 cents" to those taking advantage of a grocery store special. In terms of figures, all prices were much lower in January 1939. But in fact they were higher in relation to wages. The hotel worker of today can afford to buy much more.

Wages? As the New York State Department of Labor report indicates, maids got about $7 a week, $8 in the better hotels. Waiters' pay was $7, waitresses got less, $5.50, bellman were paid from nothing to $2, and maintenance men got $23 or $24.

You wouldn't find even these sums in your envelopes. The costs of uniforms and their laundering or cleaning would be deducted. Then, particularly for dining room and kitchen workers, there would be fines – fines for being late, for breaking a dish, for a missing spoon, for eating a guest's leftovers.

Before hotel workers stood up in the late 1930s and got a union and a contract, they were looked upon as servants - treated patronizingly at best, with contempt at worst. This 1912 cartoon mocks the servility which was expected of waiters.

And you put up with all this because the country was just staggering out of the Great Depression and millions still had no work at all.

A 1912 description of the life of a pre-union waiter, in the New York World, a leading daily newspaper, told the story vividly:

The worst off, in those years before roll-call, were the extra banquet waiters, according to the World account. "Many big hotels have from 100 to 200 banquet parties every year. For these banquets 'extra' waiters are hired. They must appear in full dress and, of course, clean shaven and wearing highly polished shoes.

A receipt from Essex House of an employee being paid.

A note from Hotel Edison for the waiters offering them a sandwich.

Life under the Yellow Dog contract

In the union files are a number of waiters' wage cards from the Hotel Astor dating back to the years 1906 to 1913. The front and back of the cards tell two related stories:

Wages were low.

Management was trying hard to ban unionism.

The front of the card gives the waiter's monthly wage, minus fines and deductions. In 1906 one waiter's wage was $25 a month but he actually received from $18.33 upward. In 1912 another waiter's wage was $30 a month but he actually took home as little as $11.08 one month. The card records that he had one day off every two weeks. In 1913 the wage of this waiter was cut to $20 a month, and one month he received only $9.40.

The reverse of the card gives the agreement the worker had to sign to get the job.

It was called a "yellow dog contract", an individual agreement in which the employee swears he is not a union member, won't become one, and won't join in a strike.

By the Astor contract, the waiter "agrees that he is not now, nor will he become, affiliated, as a member or otherwise, with the International Hotel Workers' Union, or any other kindred organization, nor promote, aid or participate, either directly or indirectly in any strike against the business of the Hotel."

The contract also gave the Astor the right to fire the worker without notice and "to search his person, trunk, clothing and effects" at any time.

Carfare added to this brings the incidental expenses of each waiter for such a banquet to about 75 cents. All a waiter receives fro serving such a banquet is $2. Each waiter must serve from 10 to 16 guests.

"And how about tips? When the banquet waiters have served the coffee they must leave the banquet hall by order of the headwaiter. Those that are extra men are paid off and sent home and those that are 'housemen' must return to their stations in their respective dining rooms. When the committee for arrangements calls for the bill the headwaiter presents it, receives a check for the banquet and a goodly sum for pro rata distribution among the waiters who served the banquet. But no waiter ever receives a cent of that money."

If you were a hotel worker in the pre-union days, you were paid once or twice a month, not weekly. This practice, on top of low pay rates, drove thousands of hotel workers into the hands of loan sharks.

You got sick? That was a tough break – you not only lost your pay, you piled up doctors' bills.

If you were black, you had the extra problem of discrimination. You might get a menial or back-of-the-house job in some hotels, but you would be wasting your time if you applied at some de luxe hotels. The hotel that prided itself on being the finest in the city did not have a single black employee.

Hotel workers couldn't protest unfair treatment – there was nobody to protest to – no grievance machinery, no shop committee, and of course no union business agent. You were always on your own – a worker up against the overwhelming power of management. If you became a "trouble-maker" – someone who protested and talked back – your name went on a blacklist and you couldn't get a job anywhere in the industry.

The day came when you were too old to work, but if you were among the fortunate, maybe you got a little farewell party and a present from management, but that was it. Pensions didn't exist.

Leaflet handed out to guests and passersby in 1912.

The 1939 contract turned the tide, gave hotel workers a sense of what all crafts working together could do – a confidence they have carried into all the actions since then.

So if you had sat in Manhattan Center on December 29, 1938 and listened to the reading of the draft contract, you would have thought it was pretty good. You might have hoped for more, been disappointed on this or that particular. But you would have recognized solid advances – and understood that the tide had been turned and that the union would get more as the years went on.

In January, 1913 the strike begun in 1912 was starting to weaken. Here strikers, most of them waiters, talk things over in front of their meeting place, Bryant Hall.

On the 1964 anniversary of the first contract, President Jay Rubin - the chief negotiator of the first contract and of all contracts since - had this comment:

"If I were asked to summarize what we accomplished on January 18, 1939, I would say that above all, with the signing of the first contract, we brought dignity to one of the most depressed and exploited categories of workers. The miserable pay, the endless hours, the quick firings, the kickbacks, the fines - all the crudities and cruelties that marked the lives of hotel and culinary workers in these days - were expressions of the contempt in which they were held. They were regarded as servants who were entitled to no rights and who probably wouldn't know how to exercise them anyhow."

Rubin described the first contract as "a landmark in the history of our union and of the union movement in New York".

The 1939 contract was a particularly sweet victory because it came after decades of failure and defeat.

The modern hotel industry was a by-product of the industrial growth of the last century. Hotels arose hard by railroad stations and in the resort areas to which the rich had access. And the movement which led to the birth of our union had its unmarked beginning in the resentment of early hotel workers against servant-like treatment.

Time and again hotel workers tried to do something about their wretched working conditions.

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