A local organization affiliated with National People’s Action, a 27-year-old coalition of grassroots neighborhood groups, won a public meeting with Chicago Police Superintendent Terry Hillard in February. One of the assumptions behind the meeting was that if the superintendent himself agreed to the group’s demands, residents of the group’s turf would get an improvement in area policing standards almost immediately.
NPA groups made the same assumption, that power lies at the top, when they began a three-year campaign to win jobs for neighborhood residents from Marriott, a publicly-held conglomerate that owns and runs hotels, food and janitorial services, and other hospitality-related businesses worldwide. Marriott became a target when community groups and the National Training and Information Center (NTIC), a resource center for neighborhood groups affiliated with NPA, struggled to deal with neighborhood residents’ need for employment. But at Marriott, as community groups learned during the campaign, power turned out to be spread through the corporate structure.
Although Marriott officials said from the beginning they were open to working with the community, when about 1,000 leaders of neighborhood groups showed up at Marriott corporate headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, on a Monday in April 1996, as part of the 25th national NPA conference, they met only with Joe Ryan, Marriott’s general counsel. Ryan told them, “There’s nobody here but me. If that’s not good enough, pick Lockheed Martin [as a target].” NPA has a tradition of visiting powerful people at their homes and offices to demand meetings after politer tactics fail. One day earlier, the same group had visited the mansion of Richard Marriott, one of the two brothers at the top of the Marriott chain. Mrs. Marriott answered the door, said her husband was away and no, she would not accept a letter from the group to pass on to her husband.
Learning From Mistakes
Ryan did agree to a series of initial meetings between Marriott and neighborhood groups in the summer and fall of 1996, but hopes of hammering out the rules for a new partnership in just a few negotiating sessions were quickly dashed.
Demands that had sounded good on paper proved unworkable. For example, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a statewide organization that includes hog farmers, wanted Marriott to agree to buy bacon and other pork products from family farmers. But there was no easy way to set up a delivery system to make it happen. Groups like Iowa CCI dropped out of the Marriott campaign as it became clear that it was not in their self-interest.
Eight months after the April 1996 direct action campaign, John Musick, then director of Michigan Organizing Project, one of the key organizations on the jobs campaign, wrote up his reflections on the Marriott campaign.
“I think the fundamental reason [we didn’t really win anything at the first negotiating session] is that we went in not understanding how Marriott works or what they were capable of delivering…. Marriott is almost more of a coalition than it is a monolithic corporation. In other words, they are a collection of fairly independent entities tied together by some common economic interest, but capable and desirous of doing their own thing.”
Many of the Marriott subsidiaries in community groups’ neighborhoods, such as in Cincinnati, were actually franchised hotel properties over which the conglomerate exercised limited control. Even more confusing were the legion of service businesses Marriott operates. For example, many corporations and schools use what is now called Sodexho-Marriott services. Marriott even has regional coalition-style federations of its subsidiaries, called Marriott Business Councils, which meet regularly to discuss common issues of concern.
All these entities needed workers, but how to get the jobs for low-income community residents was difficult to figure out. The low point of the organizing campaign came when Marriott held a job fair in Chicago in 1997. Neighborhood groups, encouraged by Marriott officials’ statements that the company “hires for attitude, then trains for skills” turned out several thousand people for the fair, which appeared to result in few actual hires, as Marriott was unprepared for the large turn out.
Redefining Goals and Strategy
At that point, organizers and leaders took stock and floated the idea of dropping the Marriott campaign to focus on other job development strategies. But there was enough momentum to carry the campaign forward.
“It’s taken a lot of time,” said Jaci Feldman, lead jobs staff at NTIC, who also organized the NPA hit on Marriott in April 1996. “Our initial expectations were much more than we could even have handled. We realized we had to scale down, and really do something well in one city, then replicate that. We also realized that we needed to reach out to other types of service providers, such as for pre-employment training.”
NPA shifted to a two-pronged local and national campaign, targeting local units of Marriott for specific wins while continuing to work with top staff like Dave Sampson, Marriott’s national manager of diversity procurement. Sampson, incidentally, credits creation of his position to the NPA Marriott campaign.
The first significant victory from this approach came in St. Petersburg, Florida, the base for a local organization that had participated in the original action and whose leaders had gone further than most groups with Marriott. In the wake of riots that took place at the end of 1997 there, local and national attention to the need for low-income neighborhood development had increased. Since 1997 the leaders of the group had been meeting with area Marriott representatives at the Marriott Business Council meetings and other forums. It paid off in the summer of 1998.
A big meeting yielded contracts for eight local minority vendors including a carpet cleaning company, which has already done several million dollars’ worth of business with Marriott. Widely reported in St. Pete, the meeting and commitment by Marriott yielded comments like these, in a St. Petersburg Times editorial:
“Almost as important as the result is the process used to get the vendor contracts…. Minority groups and others who feel shut out in business should take note of how the community groups worked the two-year process it took to get Marriott involved. The groups banded together and asserted themselves in a systematic, sensible way. They got Marriott’s attention, business from the hospitality company and promises that there will be more….The Marriott initiative alone will not have a huge impact on St. Petersburg’s minority business community. But if it proves to be a catalyst for other large, national corporations, it will have achieved success.”
Along with the vendor agreements in St. Petersburg, the NPA Marriott campaign has yielded a program along the same lines for Chicago. Marriott has spent millions of dollars purchasing goods and services from minority business owners as a result of the campaign. Groups in Syracuse, New York, and Chicago got Marriott to create local Pathways to Independence programs, Marriott’s corporate model for recruiting low-income people. In Hartford, the company set up a school-to-work demonstration with a local organization. In San Antonio, Texas, hundreds of people received jobs through connections between the Neighborhoods First Alliance and Marriott that resulted from NPA. Expansion for the future is projected in cities like Chapel Hill/Carrboro, North Carolina and Springfield, Massachusetts.
In addition, the tone of meetings with Marriott officials has changed. At a Chicago meeting in February 1999 between Sampson and neighborhood business owners, Jerome Nelson, who runs a laundry and linen service that could begin receiving Marriott contracts shortly, told Sampson, “I could have made five phone calls and never gotten a meeting with you.” These victories have been won only because leaders and organizers recognized that the standard approach wasn’t working. After they became educated on the real way Marriott works, NPA groups redefined goals and overall strategy. They had to learn from their mistakes, allow time for reflection, and not give up.
“I think it’s the beginning of our program here, modeled on work we’ve done in St. Petersburg and San Antonio,” says Feldman. “For example, next time you fly through Chicago, if you eat or shop at one of the branded franchises Marriott runs there, you could be served by someone who came through our program.”