[Marxism] Hotel Workers Fret Over a New Rival: Alexa at the Front Desk

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Sep 25 07:05:35 MDT 2018

(Creative destruction? No, just destruction.)

NY Times, Sept. 25, 2018
Hotel Workers Fret Over a New Rival: Alexa at the Front Desk
By Eduardo Porter

The bosses haven’t yet introduced facial recognition technology at the 
Royal Hawaiian Hotel. But from her perch behind the front desk at the 
pink neo-Moorish palace overlooking Waikiki Beach, Jean Te’o-Gibney can 
see it coming.

“Marriott just rolled it out in China,” enabling guests to check into 
their rooms without bothering with front-desk formalities, said Ms. 
Te’o-Gibney, a 53-year-old grandmother of seven. “It seems they know 
they will be eliminating our jobs.”

Similar fears simmer throughout Marriott’s vast network of hotels, the 
largest in the United States. Over the last two weeks, Ms. Te’o-Gibney 
and thousands of other Marriott workers — cooks and cashiers, bellhops 
and housekeepers — have voted to authorize their union, Unite Here, to 
strike at dozens of locations from Waikiki to Boston and San Diego to 

Alongside the usual demands for higher wages and better workplace 
safety, the union is bringing another issue to the table, asking for 
procedures to protect workers affected by new technologies and the 
innovations they spur.

“You are not going to stop technology,” said Unite Here’s president, D. 
Taylor. “The question is whether workers will be partners in its 
deployment or bystanders that get run over by it.”

Unlike manufacturing workers, whose jobs have been lost to automation 
since as far back as the 1950s, workers in the low-wage portion of the 
service sector had remained until now largely shielded from job-killing 

Many earned too little to justify large capital costs to replace them. A 
typical hotel or motel desk clerk earns just over $12 an hour, according 
to government data; a concierge just over $13.50. And many of the tasks 
they perform seemed too challenging to automate. Technology is changing 
this calculus.

There is no equivalent measure on the penetration of software systems 
like Alexa or touch screens in the workplace. But in 2014, automakers in 
the United States had 117 robots for every 1,000 workers, according to 
research by the economists Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute 
of Technology and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University. In service 
businesses, there were virtually none.

But with advances in machine learning and other innovations in 
information technology, many service jobs are now potentially in 
jeopardy. Compared with manufacturing, the investment needed to automate 
some tasks in the hotel sector — like front desk or concierge services — 
is likely to be relatively low.

Maria Mendiola, a concierge at the San Jose Marriott, frets that 
Amazon’s agreement to deploy its Echo device in hotel rooms across 
Marriott’s properties will eventually make her position pointless. 
“Alexa might do my job in the future,” she said.

At the Sheraton Waikiki, next to the Royal Hawaiian, cashiers at the 
beachside lounge worry about a newly deployed computer system that will 
allow servers to close out their own checks — making cashiers redundant.

There are automatic dishwashers on the market; machines to flip burgers 
and mix cocktails; robots to deliver room service or help guests book a 
restaurant reservation.

New technologies are reconfiguring the workplace in other ways. Doormen 
are losing tips as guests turn to Uber and Lyft instead of regular 
taxis. So are bellhops when guests use Seamless, a food-delivery app, 
instead of room service.

How many jobs will technology take out? Hoteliers have yet to figure out 
how guests will react to a more tech-heavy experience. A Marriott 
spokeswoman said in a statement that the chain was not deploying 
technology to eliminate jobs but was “personalizing the guest experience 
and enhancing the stay.”

Cliff Atkinson, senior vice president for hospitality at MGM Resorts, 
said new technologies had changed job descriptions at properties across 
his chain but had not eliminated jobs. Front-desk clerks displaced by 
automated check-in kiosks are deployed as “lobby ambassadors” or concierges.

Still, history suggests that the most powerful motivation to deploy new 
technologies has been the opportunity to reduce labor costs. From 1993 
to 2007, Professors Acemoglu and Restrepo estimated, each new robot cut 
5.6 jobs and reduced wages by 0.5 percent.

As technology gets better and cheaper, there are lots of new tasks it 
could take over. “It is a new, uncharted area for our company and our 
industry as a whole,” Mr. Atkinson said. “We have talked about one or 
two brands being fully automated and self-service for the guest.”

David Autor, an economist at M.I.T., says it is plausible to foresee a 
future in which — as airlines have done — hotels deploy humans to tend 
to elite guests and automated systems for everybody else. Workers 
generate costs well beyond their hourly wage, Professor Autor argued. 
They get sick and take vacations and require managers. “People are 
messy,” he noted. “Machines are straightforward.”

Last year, the McKinsey Global Institute issued a report projecting that 
technology would drive a 30 percent decline in jobs in food service and 
lodging from 2016 to 2030. That’s almost on a par with the 38 percent 
decline in manufacturing jobs from 1960 to 2012.

Unions would rather not have manufacturing’s story repeat itself in the 
service sector. “We are trying to get ahead of that,” said Anand Singh, 
president of Unite Here’s local in San Francisco. “We are not Luddites, 
but we are seeking a real voice at table.”

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is also worried about 
technologies hurtling into the present. As it squared off for contract 
negotiations with United Parcel Service this year, the union put a bold 
proposition on the table: to prohibit using drones or autonomous 
vehicles to deliver packages. But in September, when the union sent the 
agreement to members for a ratification vote, there was no such provision.

Edward Wytkind, who until this year headed the Transportation Trades 
Department of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., said unions could not stop technology 
if they tried. “Maybe you can stop it through one round of bargaining or 
slow it down,” he said. “But innovation has been going on for 100 years 
and has never stopped.”

And he noted what might be the cost of success: “Are we winning a future 
for workers? Not if the company goes out of business.”

A better strategy might be to demand a say in how technology is deployed.

The Teamsters’ tentative deal with U.P.S., for instance, calls for six 
months of advance warning to the union of technological deployments and 
for the creation of a committee with union and company representatives 
that would negotiate “regarding the effects of the proposed 
technological changes.”

Unite Here is following a similar path. Mr. Singh listed the union’s 
goals for Marriott contracts: “We want to talk about how technology can 
assist the work we perform and ease the rigors of our work, how our 
members are trained, what happens to workers who would otherwise be 
tagged as redundant, how our members are repositioned to succeed or 
hired into other workplaces.”

In June, the union managed for the first time to include protections 
from technological change in its contracts covering workers at the Las 
Vegas properties of MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment. Workers will 
be trained to do jobs created or modified by new technology, allowing 
them to share in the productivity gains. The contracts also provide for 
the company to try to find jobs for displaced workers. But the union’s 
key achievement was to get 180 days’ warning of technological deployments.

“They have to let us know and show us the prototypes and must negotiate 
with us,” Mr. Taylor said. “At the end of the day, they can move 
forward, but this gives us time to understand the effects.”

If they could choose a precedent from American labor history, today’s 
union leaders might follow the path of the International Longshore and 
Warehouse Union.

In the 1960s and ’70s, dockworkers were walloped by one of the most 
revolutionary technical innovations of the 20th century: containers. At 
a stroke, containers slashed both the time and number of workers needed 
to load a ship, saving vast amounts of money.

Instead of trying to stop the big boxes, the union covering the 
longshoremen on the West Coast demanded a share of the spoils: rich 
retirement packages for workers who were let go, and hefty remuneration 
for those who stayed. As a result, longshoremen working full time, year 
round, now make $168,000 to $186,000 a year on average.

But you need a lot of power to get a deal like that. The longshore union 
could shut down ports at will, imposing huge costs on shippers. For 
workers lacking that kind of clout, the gains achieved by the 
longshoremen seem out of reach.

Unite Here is not powerless. Nationwide, only 7.6 percent of workers in 
the accommodation industry are unionized, according to government 
statistics. But in San Francisco, for instance, Unite Here represents 89 
percent of workers at Class A hotels. That’s partly why housekeepers in 
San Francisco make $22.64 an hour, the union notes, more than double the 
national median of $10.09.

Unite Here’s victories so far have been hard won. “It was not an easy 
ask,” Mr. Taylor said of the language on technology in the Las Vegas 
deals. “It does infringe on hotels’ right to do what they want.”

The outcome might or might not deliver a greater share of the gains from 
technology to workers. But front-desk clerks and concierges will have 
better options than severance when Alexa or computer software takes over 
some of their tasks. “It was a good resolution,” Mr. Taylor said. “Time 
will tell if it is good enough.”

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