Isabel Fernandez looked at the maid's uniform she wears at the Burbank Holiday Inn and smiled scornfully.
"It's beautiful," she said of the orange polyester garment. "When we're wearing it, we look like pumpkins."
The uniform was worn thin because Fernandez was required to scrub bathrooms in the 375-room hotel on her hands and knees.
Angry over treatment like this, Fernandez and 27 other Latina workers at the Burbank hotel walked off their jobs on Jan. 30.
Over the next 11 days, they picketed the hotel, often with children toddling beside them. Through translators they told how they were expected to clean toilets without protective gloves, of being suspended without pay for a week or more if they couldn't show a doctor's note or proof of illness after a day's absence and of being humiliated by hotel management.
Seen as Act of Courage
The protest was viewed by many observers as an act of courage.
Although they earn only $3.40 an hour, a nickel more than the minimum wage, Fernandez and the other maids said they need their paychecks to feed their families. And yet, when they felt they had been pushed too far, they put their jobs on the line by demonstrating publicly.
For Edith Fox of Burbank, who visited the picket line to offer her support, the protest was a reminder of an earlier, more idealistic time in the American labor movement.
Fox, who said she spent 38 years with the United Auto Workers in Detroit, asked several of the maids and laundry workers to describe their grievances.
"What they told me was that it was a matter of simple justice," she said.
Now back on the job, the women didn't win more money or dramatically better working conditions. But the protest changed lives and seems to have been a victory in human terms.
At the center of the protest was Gloria Tartaglione, 44, of Hollywood.
Tartaglione is the executive housekeeper at the hotel, a member of management, not labor. Tartaglione said during the demonstration, and continues to say, that she was never the leader of the protest, only a supporter.
But it was Tartaglione, a feisty blonde, barely 5 feet tall, who triggered the walkout after a confrontation with hotel owner Joseph Perry. She said she refused Perry's order to transfer two of her housekeeping supervisors to Perry's Glendale Holiday Inn, where they would be forced to work fewer hours. Tartaglione resigned, and the maids and laundry workers who supported her walked out.
"No comment," Perry has said repeatedly when asked to respond to his employees' allegations.
Supervises Maids, Laundry
As executive housekeeper of the Burbank hotel, Tartaglione is in charge of the maids and laundry workers. During the protest, she said she cooperated with Perry until the interests of her staff began to seem more important than keeping a job.
"I want to retire with peace in my heart," she said during the demonstration. "He made me do many arbitrary things for a year in my executive housekeeper position."
"I don't care about me. . . . I can work anyplace." But she said she didn't like people taking advantage of those who can't defend themselves. "These people come to work. They do the best for the company. They are loyal to the company."
She remembered that she had threatened maids with loss of their jobs if they made a single mistake spit-polishing pre-selected rooms to be inspected by staff from Holiday Inn headquarters in Memphis, Tenn.
Pressure on Good Workers
But the worst of the things she had to do, she said, was to apply pressure to good workers, such as veteran laundry worker Blanca Hernandez of Glendale, whom she had been told to dismiss. Perry, she alleged, typically pressured unwanted employees into resigning instead of firing them. She said she has documentation of many such forced terminations.
As Tartaglione sees it, her staff was caught between "two big powers"--an exploitative employer and an indifferent union, Local 531 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union. Tartaglione said that Perry threatened the housekeepers with firing if they didn't sign up with the local, a charge union officials Joe Criscione and others emphatically deny.
As a Latina, the Cuban-born Tartaglione said she understood the pressures her staff were under--their sense of isolation from the English-speaking community and its agencies; the precariousness of their dignity as they worked in low-paid, menial jobs; the pressures many of the women faced at home.
"She hides it from her husband because he doesn't like problems," Tartaglione said of a protester who feared that her name would get into the paper.
The day after the walkout Tartaglione filed formal discrimination charges against the Burbank Holiday Inn with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Among her charges: That "Mr. Perry only permitted me to hire Hispanics which he referred to as 'wetbacks.' . . . Mr. Perry hires Hispanics because he feels he can take advantage of them and that they will tolerate his abusive conduct. He prefers to hire Hispanics who don't speak English. . . ."
"Mr. Perry intimidates these people easily, but he doesn't intimidate me," Tartaglione said outside the hotel. "I am not a wetback, and I will go to the court."
Tartaglione occasionally gave money, as well as encouragement, to the others, several of them single mothers. "I've spent about $1,000 already, and I don't care," said Tartaglione, who operates an interior-decorating business in Los Angeles. The protesters were not receiving financial support from any outside group, she said.
Return to Work
On Feb. 11, Tartaglione and the other women, accompanied by two Latino representatives of EEOC, returned to work after the hotel sent them telegrams offering their jobs back. Not to return would have been tantamount to resigning under terms of the contract between Local 531 and the hotel, which prohibits walkouts and other labor actions. Even Criscione says the contract is a bad one.
"They are a little better off, not much," Tartaglione, executive housekeeper once again, said Friday at the Holiday Inn.
Fernandez and the other maids still make $3.40 an hour.
But they may mop the bathrooms now, instead of kneeling down to scrub them. And the housekeepers have been promised that there will be no more abrupt transfers from Burbank to Glendale.
Housekeeping supervisors are now permitted to order meals in the hotel restaurant, a concession that has to do with dignity. "We want to demonstrate that we are important in housekeeping too," Tartaglione explained.
Changed in Other Ways
The 28 women who dared to walk out are changed in other ways as well.
They know which agencies to contact when they have a grievance with their employer.
Each of them was alone before, Tartaglione said. "Now they are all together. They have solidarity."
"I was not the leader," Tartaglione repeated. The Burbank maids and laundry workers have found leaders among themselves, such as Isabel Fernandez. The women, Tartaglione said, have decided to continue meeting, even though they are back on the job. They plan to form a women's social club. It will be for "the exchange of ideas and sociability." The women also want to have English courses, to become "more of America," she said.
"At least the people now are more valiant to ask for whatever is their right," Tartaglione said. "They know their rights, and they are no longer afraid to ask for them. This is an important step in the life of any person, any worker. Because if you are afraid, people can step on you."
On Feb. 12, Lincoln's birthday, the day after the Burbank housekeepers went back to work, 18 maids, most of them Latinas who speak little or no English, walked off their jobs and began picketing the Glendale Holiday Inn.