The Story of the First Contract

The “Industry-Wide Agreement” (“IWA” for short), is the New York Hotel and Gaming Trades Council’s master union contract with the Hotel Association of New York City, Inc. (which is the union of the hotel owners). Today, the IWA covers 28,000 members of the Hotel Trades Council in New York City – the vast majority of our union’s members, including employees of every type of hotel and motel, large and small, not only in the center of Manhattan but throughout New York City, including the outer boroughs. This is the story of the fight our union waged in 1939 to win the first IWA.


A journey back to the beginning - to the early struggles of hotel workers, the birth of the union, and the signing on January 18, 1939 of the first of the series of contracts that have established the working conditions of New York City hotel workers today.

Early in December 1938, a leaflet handed out in the hotels of the union – the recently created Hotel Trades Council – informed the workers that negotiations with the Hotel Association were nearing the climax:

"The negotiating committees have been in virtually continuous session since last Thursday, with meetings practically every day since. One lengthy session was held into a late hour last Tuesday night and another was in progress today."

The leaflet spread this message: "Hotel Workers! Keep your ranks solid. Stand firm!"

Two weeks later – good news in a hard winter – came another leaflet. It began simply and exultantly: "It's here!"

A years-old dream had come true. A succession of defeats had been turned into victory. The union had proved itself, and won the agreement of the Hotel Association to a contract establishing wage rates, hours and other working conditions – the first of the series of contracts that have added gain to gain and established the working conditions of today.

That first contract – discussed clause by clause and approved at a mass meeting of Union members at Manhattan Center – provided for a 48-hour, six-day work week for most workers, 54 hours for waiters and busboys. It raised wages by an average of $2, setting these typical minimum weekly rates:

  • Maids $14.50
  • Waiters $9 (waitresses got only $7.50 – only later did the union succeed in ending wage discrimination against women)
  • Bellmen $4
  • Electricians $30
  • Sous chefs $50
  • White jackets $24
  • Dishwashers $15
  • Bartenders $30
  • Elevator operators $19.

(These were the rates for employees of so-called Class A restaurants and of transient hotels; the rates applying to dining rooms designated Class B or Class C or to semi-transient and residential hotels were lower.)

And the first contract brought these other gains:

  • Time and a half after 10 hours
  • One week of vacation
  • Free uniforms
  • The union shop
  • Prohibition of employment discrimination

Working conditions before the first contract

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.

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.

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:

  • Waiters worked 10 to 12 hours a day in split shifts, seven days a week most weeks. Average wage: 83 cents a day.
  • The waiter "bribes the headwaiter to allow him to work and the cook to give him something to eat."
  • "The food given to the help is a so-called 'Irish Stew,' a mixture of leftover odds and ends. If some is left over a second time it is treated with browned flour and red pepper and christened 'goulash'."
  • Waiters provided their own jackets, which cost $6 to $12 each. "The simple expedient of supplying the waiters with clean white coats would involve an expense, which the hotel managers seem to have no desire to incur."
  • Examples of the fines: "A waiter was fined $5 for giving a girl cashier a part of a portion of wheatcakes which had been left over and paid for by a customer. Another was fined 50 cents for forgetting to serve a guest with a fingerbowl. A third paid 50 cents for dropping a knife and another $1 for drinking in the pantry some of the coffee that had been left by a guest."

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.

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.

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.

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.

First contract struck first blow against job bias

The victory of the first contract signed over 80 years ago was also the union's first victory in its long fight against job discrimination. The men and women 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 Union's second contract in 1942. 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.

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.

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.

The strike of 1912

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.

In 1912 the first general strike of New York City hotel and restaurant workers inaugurated a quarter-century of hard-fought but ill-fated struggles. At noon on May 7th of that year a whistle blew in the dining room of the Belmont Hotel, on 42nd Street across from Grand Central, and 150 waiters, quickly followed by busboys, cooks, dishwashers and even bellman and maids, walked out to the street. Before being roughly dispersed or jailed by police, they waved placards and shouted slogans giving their demands:

  • One Day Off in Seven
  • Ten Dollars a Week for Waiters – Seven Dollars for Busboys
  • Abolish Fines
  • We Want Sanitary Lockers

The strike spread to the Plaza, the old Waldorf (at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street), the Knickerbocker, such restaurants as Delmonico's and Sherry's, and many other hotels and restaurants. Within two weeks some 18,000 hotel and restaurant workers were on strike.

On May 19th a mass meeting was held in the Amsterdam Opera House, on 44th Street near Ninth Avenue, down the block from present Local 6 headquarters.

"Every seat was taken and behind the last row of benches the audience stood five rows deep," the New York World reported. The Evening Mail described those present as "waiters, cooks, pantrymen, chambermaids and all the rest."

But an angry hotel owner offered another description in a letter to a friend that came into the hands of a friend of the strikers. The strikers are a "contemptible, rascally bunch," he wrote. "I doubt if there are 50 honest men among them. They are a lot of low-lived thieves."

Joseph Elster, business agent of the newly-formed International Hotel Workers Union, reflected the growth of awareness that the waiters could not win better conditions by themselves. "This is not the fight of the waiters alone," he told the rally. "It is also the fight of the cooks, the chambermaids and every man or woman employed in or about a hotel."

But the need – the desperate need – of hotel workers for a new deal was not enough. The police cracked down hard on pickets and demonstrators, and the managements were successful in recruiting scabs from the many jobless. A few hotels, like the Plaza, granted some of the strikers' demands, but most fought with all their resources to keep things as they were. The union was thinly organized and poorly led and without funds. It tried to enlist all crafts in the struggle but with little success. The strikers grew discouraged and drifted back to work, and late in June the last holdouts voted to call off the strike.

The most militant of the strikers were blacklisted and driven from the industry. Hotel workers struck again in 1918, in 1929 and in 1934. The particulars were different but the story was essentially the same as in 1912. The employers had the power of wealth and all the forces of the law on their side. The striking unions were poorly organized, often ineptly led and broke. They were by and large organizations of one or two crafts, and the employers again and again were able to play off craft against craft, national group against group.

But in the wake of the defeat of the 1934 strike things began to change.

These were the New Deal years and the climate was relatively favorable to labor. That didn't mean that unions sprang up automatically. They had to be built the hard way, with plenty of struggle and sacrifice. But the employers could no longer be sure of the help of the courts and police.

Then, despite all the earlier defeats and blacklisting, a solid nucleus of hotel workers existed which understood that unionism was the only way for them and believed that the failures of the past could be turned into victory.

The man who put down his shovel

One of those who joined the 1912 strike was Leonardi Santo, an Italian immigrant whose job was to shovel coal at the fashionable Elks' Club. (In those years hotels and clubs were heated by coal-burning furnaces).

Santo told a reporter that he worked 12 hours a day and was paid $30 a month. He paid $11 a month in rent, leaving him just $19 to pay all the other bills of a family of six.

He walked out with the others, he said, because he would rather see his children put out of their misery at once than live on half starving.

The 1937 organizing committee

The Childs restaurant victory in 1937 strengthened the confidence of hotel workers that they too could have a union. Jay Rubin, general director of the Hotel, Restaurant and Cafeteria Employees Organization Committee, holds the agreement just signed by the Childs Company representative as Special Prosecutor Thomas Dewey, later governor, looks on. Miguel Gariga of the Organization Committee is at right. The contract signing took place on September 25, 1937.

A new leadership arose – one that had studied the past and drawn the necessary lessons from it. The new leaders saw clearly that it would take all hotel workers together to win – that the key to victory was unity of all the crafts and all the national groups working in the hotels.

The first step was a united effort by unions in the culinary field. The Food Workers Industrial Union, of which Jay Rubin was a leader, merged with the existing unions of the American Federation of Labor.

In June 1937 these unions set up a committee – the Hotel, Restaurant and Cafeteria Employees Organizing Committee – to carry out a massive organizing drive. The New York Joint Executive Board, representing the Hotel and Restaurant International Union's 11 culinary locals in the area, named Jay Rubin as general director of the campaign. He had played a key role in the unification effort.

The International Union put up $25,000 to finance the drive and the members of the 11 culinary locals - waiters, waitresses, counterman, dishwashers and others - voluntarily contributed 25 cents a month.

A major success was the organizing and signing up of the Childs chain of 52 restaurants with a total of 3,200 employees. This led to the unionization of many restaurants and cafeterias and marked improvements in working conditions. A strike at Horn and Hardart ended in failure, but this setback did not stem the organizing tide.

Rubin and other leaders then turned to the hotels, setting up a separate Hotel Organizing Committee. By the end of 1937 a few hotels had been organized and accepted the union. In addition, a batch of petitions for certification elections were on file with the State Labor Relations Board, and in every case where the workers had a chance to vote - thanks to laws won under the pressure of countless organizing campaigns - they voted for the union.

Those months saw a two-sided effort. At employee entrances, and in the hotels when they could, dedicated organizers and volunteer workers were spreading the message of unionism, signing up workers by the hundreds.

At the same time the leaders of the drive were engaged in a difficult, determined effort to bring together the various craft unions which had members in the hotel industry.

Culinary workers, building service workers, electricians, engineers, firemen and other groups - there were local unions with jurisdiction over each in the field, and some of them had contracts with this or that hotel. Craft divisions were sharp, and the overcoming of old feelings and the settling of long-standing conflicts and problems took both imagination and patience.

First demands

As the drive to unionize hotel workers got under way in 1937, the organizing committee drew up a list of demands reflecting sentiment in the hotels and published them in Volume 1, Number 1 of a 4-page paper, The Hotel Worker:

  • A general wage increase for everybody in the hotel.
  • The establishment of standard minimum wages, those getting more to get increases just the same.
  • Eight-hour day. No split watch, no revenant (call back).
  • No firing without reason.
  • No fines, fingerprinting, or any other personal intimidation.
  • Recognition of the union as a bargaining agency.
  • No payment for uniform or laundry.
  • Good Food.

Just dreams, some thought at the time. But most of them were made true by the first contract less than two years later. And the rest, and others not even imagined then, were given life by subsequent contracts.

The Hotel Trades Council signs the first contract

"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." -President Jay Rubin

The Hotel Trades Council (now the Hotel and Gaming Trades Council) was the successful result. Its formation in February 1938 was a decisive step in the struggle of hotel workers for dignity and a better life, paving the way for the winning of the first citywide wage-hour agreement 11 months later.

A unique venture that has won a place in the history of the American labor movement, the Hotel Trades Council added an industrial union set-up to the craft unionism of the locals. The local unions kept their separate identities and important functions, but the Hotel Trades Council became the central organizing, bargaining and contracting agency for all the hotel workers.

What it meant, in short, was that all hotel workers faced the future hand in hand.

Many factors and persons contributed to the historic achievement of unity. But an indispensable ingredient was the rise of leaders who were understanding, resourceful and persevering. Jay Rubin's key role in the persistent struggle to overcome all difficulties is indicated by his top post in the 1937 organizing committee, and by the fact that he was elected first president of the Hotel Trades Council.

The creation of the Hotel Trades Council both spurred organizing efforts and persuaded many hotel employers that unionism had come to the New York City hotel industry to stay. A month later, on March 23, 1938, the Hotel Association signed what is known as the Status Quo Agreement. This recognized the Hotel Trades Council as the union of hotel workers and was an essential step to the winning of the first contract.

The next months were marked by furious activity, as organizers and volunteers tackled one hotel after another, gaining many victories but suffering some setbacks too. In rapid succession, the Pennsylvania, New Yorker, McAlpin, Commodore and many other big hotels were organized and the Hotel Trades Council certified as collective bargaining agent. By the end of 1938, over 50 hotels were solidly unionized.

Negotiations for the first contract began. Some employers, still thinking that a return to the old non-union days was possible, would yield nothing and adopted stalling tactics. The workers responded at the McAlpin and some other hotels by protest actions that paralyzed services for hours.

But the majority of the hotel managements were ready to reach an agreement. They recognized that unionism was a growing force. They did not want to go through strikes such as had taken place in some of the restaurant chains. The 1939 World's Fair was coming up, and they looked to it to bring the hotels out of the long depression period of poor business. They wanted labor peace. And some of the far-sighted ones saw that unionism could help the industry too - that workers who enjoyed better pay, security and dignified treatment would give the fine service that is the main thing hotels have to sell.

Helpful in easing the difficulties in the way of a settlement were a number of outsiders, notably Father John P. Boland, chairman of the State Labor Relations Board.

The January 18, 1939 contract signing took place at the State Office Building, 80 Centre Street. It was enthusiastically hailed by many leaders in labor and in government, including Governor Herbert Lehman. "A great forward step in the history of labor relations in this city," Stanley M. Isaacs, President of the Borough of Manhattan, said.

The signing marked the close of the long era of failure – the decades of 'here-today-gone-tomorrow' unions and broken strikes. But of course it did not mean the end of problems and struggle.

One struggle began even as the contract was signed. Some hold-out employers hired an attorney and began a vain legal challenge of the right of the Hotel Association to sign an industry-wide contract. And these employers and some others kept up the fight in their hotels.

The contract provided that it would take effect in a given hotel only when the management of the hotel signed it. The union launched and pushed vigorously a drive to get the management to sign. The Pennsylvania, Commodore, St. Regis, Edison, Essex House, Croydon and New Yorker signed quickly, but others held out.

In 1939 and 1940 evidence mounted that these suspicions were correct – that the 32-A officers were only interested in pocketing members' dues and squeezing extortion money out of employers. A resolute struggle to end the hold of the racketeers on the building service workers was carried on. In 1940, hotel front service workers – doormen, bellmen, elevator operators – revolted and set up Local 144, from then on an affiliated local of the Hotel Trades Council. That same year 32-A President George Scalise was convicted of extortion.

Thus, within the four year period from 1937 to 1940, a successful organizing drive was carried out in New York City hotels, the problem of unity was solved through the establishment of the Hotel Trades Council, the breakthrough of a first city-wide contract was achieved, and the hold of racketeers on a segment of the industry was broken for good.

Reflecting on that achievement in 1964, Jay Rubin stressed that "it was not accomplished overnight or by sudden inspiration. It was the end result of many years of effort and of learning from experience – including the experience of courageous early strikers whose names we do not even know.

"The biggest lesson that had to be learned was that there must be craft unity if the hotels were to be organized and stay organized. The gradual welding of the crafts into the Hotel Trades Council was an historic accomplishment."

The January 18, 1939 contract signing was the Great Divide in the history of hotel workers. Behind, over and done with, were the failures. Ahead were problems and challenges without end, but the forces that won the first contract – the struggles of the workers that built the union and forged unity in our ranks – made possible the step-by-step progress that has brought us to where we are today.

Struggles under a union leadership that knew what was possible have added gains in every negotiations to those of the first contract. They dealt with a wide range of subjects, from wages to job security, from vacations and holidays to health and welfare. This is the union's proud chronicle of progress: