Three weeks ago, workers at Cambria Hotel and Suites in Morrisville staged a one-day strike to demand safer working conditions, an end to racial discrimination and wage theft, and the reinstatement of two employees who were fired without cause. Seven days after the strike, on a blustery Tuesday morning in March, the workers have reassembled to deliver a petition to hotel management.
They’re joined by more than 30 members of the Union of Southern Service Workers (USSW)—a cross-sector union that launched in November as an evolution of the grassroots labor movement Raise Up the South—as well as several members of the Poor People’s Campaign and a small middle school class whose teacher spotted an immersive learning opportunity.
Before delivering the petition, the workers and their supporters gather in a parking lot across the street from the hotel, brandishing signs and chanting their rights.
They set the agenda with such verve that the surrounding environment seems shaped by their cause. Why is this parking lot here, if not to be used as a staging area for the organizers? Why is it windy, if not to propel the group into the hotel lobby? What is the month of March, if not a directive?
Duane Hoskins, who works as a shuttle bus driver at Cambria—a small hotel, five minutes down the road from RDU—began organizing with his coworkers last month, when two housekeepers were fired in what he and other employees suspected to be an act of racial discrimination.
Cambria Hotel and Suites did not reply to the INDY’s request for comment.
“They were given no reason, no warning, no write-up,” Hoskins says. “They had been doing an outstanding job—they were always going above and beyond their job responsibilities. And they were the only two Black women working at the hotel.”
At the one-day strike, one of the former housekeepers, Bobbie Fuller, called on hotel management to “stop discriminating against good Black or Latino workers—or [workers of] any color.”
“We want our jobs back,” she said.
The unexplained terminations come at a time when employees of color are enduring verbal harassment from hotel management, workers say.
“The owner doesn’t call us by our names,” says Hoskins. “He calls us ‘boy.’ And there are other managers who call us ‘brother.’”
“It’s very offensive,” adds Chris Daugherty, who works as a shuttle bus driver at Cambria. “We work hard. We don’t miss days. We shouldn’t have to worry about being mistreated for our race or our color.”
Employees say they were also driven to organize around workplace safety issues. Many of the hotel’s fire alarms aren’t in order, workers say, and widespread mold has left some with lasting health issues.
Wages, too, are a chief concern. On multiple occasions, Hoskins says, he and other workers have received their paychecks more than a month late—and received less than their $12-an-hour wage.
And even if they were being paid on time and in full, $12 isn’t an acceptable wage, workers say.
“It’s hard for me to live on that,” Daugherty says. “Food’s gone up, gas has gone up, bills have gone up.”
Eshawney Gaston is a USSW member who works at a Pizza Hut in Durham. She came out to support the Cambria employees during their strike and their petition delivery and says she’ll show up a third time if workers’ demands aren’t met.
“I’ve worked in the service sector for going on eight years now,” Gaston says. “Almost every job I’ve had, I’ve had unsafe working conditions, wage theft, low wages—the same things they’re going through [at Cambria]. That’s why we all have to stand up to fight together.”
Active in four Southern states with sorely low union rates, the USSW uses a direct action model that empowers members to organize their individual workplaces without necessitating new legislation or store-by-store union elections, which are often impossible to achieve in the high-turnover service industry.
Some of the union’s work happens behind the scenes. A legal team is helping several Cambria workers file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the NC Department of Labor, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for instance.
Equally if not more important, though, is the USSW’s eagerness to show support in public spaces.
On Tuesday, only three of the 15 Cambria workers who signed the petition are available to deliver it. One of the three, Hoskins, is on the clock but plans to read the petition aloud to the owner of the hotel when the group convenes in the lobby.
It’s a confrontation that would seem unimaginably nerve-racking, if not a confrontation that the owner wouldn’t entertain, without the procession of community supporters and USSW members who chant “Hey Cambria, you’re no good, treat your workers like you should” as they stream into the lobby, effectively breaking the ice.
Hoskins has fastened a pin that says “What Would King Do” to the front of his gray uniform. The room is quiet while he reads the petition. The owner listens, shakes Hoskins’s hand, and returns to his office.
Immediately, a chant resumes.
“Who got your back?” the crowd cries, eyes on Hoskins. “WE GOT YOUR BACK.”
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