Airbnb is going all out in its efforts to win over some of its fiercest foes, including labor unions. First were the tax agreements the company proposed to local mayors and city councils, and now this: a possible deal with the Services Employees International Union (SEIU), one of the biggest labor unions in the U.S., with more than 1.1 million members.
Sources familiar with the potential SEIU and Airbnb deal told The Washington Post on April 18 that Airbnb is close to signing a deal with the SEIU that would encourage Airbnb hosts to employ unionized home cleaners who are paid at least $15 per hour, signaling the company’s entry into the Fight for $15 campaign that has caught fire throughout the U.S.
On April 14, thousands marched in protest in cities across the U.S. as part of the union-backed Fight for $15 campaign. California and New York have both recently passed legislation to raise their state minimum wages to $15 over time.
Unions have historically opposed Airbnb. When Proposition F, a ballot measure that would have further restricted short-term rentals in San Francisco, was up for a vote last November, the hotel workers’ union vehemently tried to get the measure passed, not only because of lost job opportunities for unionized workers but also because of Airbnb’s potential role in fueling affordable housing shortages in the city.
Mike Casey, president of the hotel workers’ union Unite Here Local 2, told Aljazeera America in May 2015, “There’s probably several hundred jobs a year that are lost as a result of people selecting Airbnb over a unionized hotel. But probably of even greater impact than that is the impact it’s having on affordable housing.”
The agreement between the SEIU and Airbnb, according to The Washington Post, would have Airbnb endorsing the union’s Fight for $15 campaign and “encourag[ing] vendors who provide services to homeowners on the Airbnb platform to pay their staff at least $15 per hour. The platform will also direct Airbnb hosts to cleaners that have been given a seal of approval from SEIU. The cleaners will be trained, certified, and provide green home cleaning services to Airbnb hosts, according to documents reviewed by the Washington Post.”
Since the launch of this pilot program, Cooperative Cleaning workers, who are also members of SEIU, have cleaned 1,300 Airbnb-listed properties and they are paid $15 an hour and receive benefits that include health care, overtime and disability. The pilot included free professional cleanings for hosts in Brooklyn only, but now that the pilot has ended, “all cleaning fees will be reasonably priced and communicated to hosts,” according to Cooperative Cleaning’s website.
But will a deal with the SEIU actually work in the union’s favor? The Cooperative Cleaning pilot incentivized hosts to use the service because the cleanings were essentially free. How will Airbnb actually incentivize its hosts to hire unionized professional cleaners with the SEIU who are being paid $15 an hour? That’s the big question that Airbnb has yet to address.
“At a time when economic inequality is a defining issue of our time, middle class people depend on the right to share their home in order to generate supplemental income to help make ends meet,” Airbnb’s public affairs lead for eastern North America, Christopher Nulty, said in a statement. “As our community continues to grow, we want to find ways to further extend the economic benefits of home sharing to as many people as possible. To that end, we have been engaged in conversations with organizations and community leaders about how to best help working families find solutions to economic inequality, including creating specific ways we could leverage the Airbnb platform to help create quality union jobs that pay a livable wage.”
It’s worth noting Nulty served as SEIU’s manager of national campaign communications from 2010 to 2013, and the former SEIU International president, Andy Stern, is reportedly representing Airbnb in the negotiations according to The Guardian. Nulty has not responded to Skift’s request for further comment on the pending deal.
Sahar Wali, an SEIU spokesperson, told The Washington Post, “SEIU has and always will support all finding new ways to build power for working people to help them improve their lives. As part of this commitment, we actively and regularly engage in conversations with companies who are committed to doing right by their workforce by paying better wages and giving them a voice at work through their union. Airbnb is one such company, however, there is no formal relationship or agreement between SEIU and Airbnb.”
Annemarie Strassel, a spokesperson for the hotel-workers union Unite Here, issued the following statement about the pending deal: “We are appalled by reports that SEIU is partnering with Airbnb, a company that has destroyed communities by driving up housing costs and killing good hotel jobs in urban markets across North America. Airbnb has shown a blatant disregard for city and state laws, has refused to cooperate with government agencies, and turns a blind eye to the fact that its business model exacerbates the affordable housing crisis.
“Our union has called for strict regulation of Airbnb, because this business model has led to the displacement of tens of thousands of working people around North America. A partnership with SEIU does little more than give political cover to Airbnb. It doesn’t strengthen workers, and in fact undercuts the standards we’ve fought so hard to build for housekeepers in the hospitality industry. We call on SEIU to reject any partnership with Airbnb and join us in standing in coalition with housing advocates and elected officials in the fight against illegal hotel activity.”
Politico reported that representatives from Unite Here and the SEIU were scheduled to meet on April 19 in Las Vegas to discuss the proposed Airbnb deal.
Clearly, if this deal with the SEIU does take place, it would be a big victory for Airbnb in its efforts to demonstrate that the company cares about creating local jobs for residents.
It also positions Airbnb in direct opposition to hotel associations like the Asian American Hotel Owners Association and the American Hotel & Lodging Association (arguably two of its biggest industry foes), both of whom sued the City of Los Angeles when the city instituted a minimum-wage increase to more than $15 for hospitality workers in 2014.
The SEIU deal is just one piece of the company’s strategy to win over local governments and communities, a strategy that includes paying occupancy taxes and, more recently, trying to weed out bad actors on its platform who are operating illegal hotels.
But to see if it really has its desired impact, we’ll have to wait and see how successfully Airbnb is able to convince its hosts to sign on, and continue the company’s pledge to Fight for $15.