Hundreds of San Diego hotel workers marched in downtown San Diego to pressure Marriott hotels to improve pay and working conditions for low wage workers.

A few weeks ago, on a flight from Boston to San Francisco, an ad on the seat-back screen grabbed my attention. It seemed to be about a company or organization that lived by the Golden Rule, and my curiosity was piqued. That company, the ad ultimately revealed, was Marriott Corporation.

I thought to myself: “Really?”


It turns out the commercial is part of a campaign that Marriott, headquartered in Bethesda, launched in August 2017. While intended to showcase examples of care and kindness Marriott employees offer the company’s guests, its language is far more sweeping. In a 1-minute, beautifully produced spot called “Human,” a campaign ad proclaims: “It would be spectacular if the Golden Rule was golden to every man.” Another head-turner: “It would be awesome if we shared everything and being greedy was absurd.” And the tag line: “Treating others like we’d like to be treated has always been our guiding principle.”

Which led me once again to wonder: “Marriott? Really?”

More than a year after the rollout of Marriott’s Golden Rule campaign, workers at 23 of its hotels in eight cities went on strike in October 2018 under the banner “One Job Should Be Enough.” Many of the workers couldn’t support their families with the pay and benefits Marriott provided, and needed to take second jobs. Talks between the union, UNITE-HERE, and Marriott International — the largest hotel chain in the world, with thousands of hotels under its management and $1.37 billion in profits in 2017 — had proven fruitless.

It took a nine-week strike before Marriott agreed to, among other concessions, a $1.75 per hour increase in pay for housekeepers in San Francisco, eventually growing to $4 per hour over four years. Those workers’ median wage had been $23 an hour. The company’s CEO, Arne Sorenson, was paid $12.9 million in 2018, translating to something like $6,000 per hour.

The striking workers achieved undeniable gains. But UNITE-HERE’s campaign to improve worker conditions at Marriott’s many non-union hotels continues. Considering the company’s ads like “Human,” it would be hard to fault Marriott employees around the world for musing on how “awesome” sharing “everything” would be, because it certainly hasn’t quite happened yet.

Just weeks ago, the Business Roundtable issued a new Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, signed by 181 CEO’s “who commit to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders — customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.” Purportedly, no longer will increasing shareholder value be these companies’ sole guiding principle. Marriott’s Arne Sorenson was one of the signers. Just like Marriott’s ad, it sounds good.

But what would it look like for Marriott and its fellow corporate titans to actually walk the talk?

Focusing on a labor perspective, there are lots of ways to demonstrate a Golden Rule commitment. Ending anti-union campaigns at all locations of the enterprise might be at the top of a long list that would also include real living wages reflecting local costs of living, worker engagement to help ensure safe and healthy workplaces, strong anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies and practices, and enforceable codes of conduct designed to honor the dignity of all members of the workforce. For companies that contract out or franchise parts of their operations, these standards would apply to components. And for global companies, worker rights would be enforced at all levels in the supply chain, through mechanisms like those used by the worker-driven social responsibility network.

It’s one thing for the Business Roundtable to claim a new, socially conscious corporate mission or for companies like Marriott to invoke the Golden Rule through a catchy ad campaign. It’s another thing to actually behave according to those ideals. All these companies can take concrete actions to bring their pledge closer to reality. If they won’t, it’s on all of us to hold them to account.

Michael Felsen (michael.felsen@gmail.com) retired in 2018 after a 39-year legal career with the U.S. Department of Labor, including serving as its New England Regional Solicitor from 2010-2018.