Hotel Workers Near Boiling Point

Originally published March 27, 2006 in MeetingNews

It is growing clearer each day that labor unrest in the hotel industry could explode this year into a conflict that threatens the well-being of meetings in several of North America's most important destinations.

Unite Here, the powerful hotel employees union, signaled in February a raising of the stakes by launching a campaign to hand out leaflets with union information outside more than 100 non-union Hilton and Starwood hotels in 60 cities.

The next negotiating battleground appears to be New York City, where Unite Here's contract is set to expire June 30. There could be a repeat of the intermittent picketing and loud rhetoric that have played out over the past two years in Los Angeles and San Francisco; the labor issues have yet to be resolved in either of those cities.

The New York Hotel Trades Council, the city's Unite Here local, said it is preparing for a strike if its needs aren't met by the time the contract runs out.

In addition to New York, labor contracts are scheduled to expire this year in Boston, Chicago and Hawaii, as well as Los Angeles, where a one-year contract was signed last year. A contract covering 23 hotels in Toronto expired on Jan. 31, and negotiations were ongoing at MeetingNews press time. Employees at affected San Francisco hotels are currently working without a contract.

In New York, negotiations between the union and hotels are expected to begin soon. While both sides say they hope to avoid a strike, both intend to be prepared for the worst as well.

"I have told my management team to dust off their chef's hats," said Matt Hart, president and COO of Hilton Hotels Corp.

The New York local has already organized into teams, or heats, complete with heat leaders, maps, instructions and instant communication capabilities. The local has a $28 million strike war chest.

Heat leaders, 2,700 of them, took a day off work to meet at the Manhattan Center on March 9, wearing green hats that read "7-1-06." They discussed plans for a possible strike on that date and heard motivational speeches from local and national Unite Here officials.

"We're organizing ourselves to fight management. They like to take away our rights of getting benefits as workers," said Raphael Torres, a 31-year union member and 16-year employee at the New York Hilton. "Nobody wins in a strike, but if we need to go, there's no way we're going to step back. We're going to give a hell of a fight to management."

Local Matters
In all the affected cities, Unite Here is seeking better wages, benefits and working conditions for its members. But there are local issues as well.

The New York local, with 25,000 members, claims strong grievances specifically with Hilton. The union plans to negotiate with that company separately from the others so as to have stronger language in a new contract to protect against violations. The local New York union wanted a strongly worded contract with Hilton because the company allegedly has committed repeated and egregious contract violations in the past, as compared to other New York hotels, said New York local spokesperson John Turchiano.

(The union and a city's hotels sometimes agree the hotels will negotiate as a group, but the process varies from city to city; in New York, currently either the union or a hotel can opt for separate negotiations.)

"We have basically found Hilton by far to be the most abusive hotel company," said Turchiano.

Turchiano alleged that aside from receiving low wages, Hilton employees work in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. For example, he claimed that managers from the New York Hilton and The Waldorf=Astoria, which is owned by Hilton, have been "remiss under the law to train employees" in fire safety procedures.

According to Turchiano, health and safety experts hired by Hilton found fire exits blocked, sprinkler caps covered and exit doors unable to open.

"Hilton has the attitude that the mining companies took toward health and safety in the mines, and unfortunately it took a tragedy to get people to pay attention," Turchiano said. "Our members have the right to work in the healthiest and safest environment."

Hilton officials declined to address those specific allegations, but in an earlier interview Hart indicated he couldn't understand why the union has such a problem with the company.

"Hilton has an established record as a great place to work," Hart said. "We recruit and retain quality employees who provide our guests impeccable service and an outstanding experience. Our pay and benefits for team members are at or above market. And our employees tend to stay with us longer than the typical hospitality or retail employee, as evidenced by the fact that our tenure ranges are among the best in the industry."

While Hart said it was too early to speculate on the potential for strikes in New York or any other cities, he said the company will bring in other workers or have managers take on service duties if strikes occur.

"We would like to assure our customers that our unionized hotels will remain fully operational in the unfortunate event ofsuch a disturbance," Hart said.

The Pains of Labor
The specter of strikes or lockouts, or even just picketers, presents significant issues for meeting planners. Some attendees may not want to cross picket lines. Some may not even attend the meeting, presenting a potential attrition problem. A group may even decide to meet elsewhere, possibly subjecting itself to cancellation damages and the time and expense of finding an alternative destination.

Laurie Sharp, president of San Francisco-based Sharp Events, saw first-hand what kind of impact labor disputes can have on meetings when lockouts and picketing occurred in San Francisco in 2004 and early 2005.

"This is something our industry should really be paying attention to and know what's going on," Sharp said.

Sharp said that while she hasn't outright avoided planning events in the destinations with expiring contracts, she's informing her clients of the contract-expiration dates. If a group wants Sharp to plan an event in an affected city, she will ask the hotel about its contingency plans should a strike occur.

Such plans are in the works. "We absolutely are making contingency plans — you have to when you're dealing with an impending contract expiration," said David Scypinski, senior vice president of industry relations at Starwood Hotels.

But any group booking an event must consider the hotel contract carefully, according to Sharp, because even if attendees don't want to cross picket lines, the contract may require the group to press on with the event regardless.

"You've got to inform your attendees before they arrive," she said. "It's all about communicating so that there aren't any surprises."

The American Library Association also felt the impact of the San Francisco labor unrest at a convention there last year. Many ALA members refused to cross picket lines, and some even joined in Unite Here protests, said ALA planner Deidre Ross.

Fortunately for ALA, not all hotels used for the conference were impacted by the labor problems, so upset members could have switched hotels. But if more than one or two hotels used by ALA's 25,000 attendees had been picketed, the group could have had a big problem, Ross said.

ALA's 2006 conferences are in unaffected cities, but a 2007 conference is booked in Washington, D.C., where hotel contracts will expire that year. The group has been discussing how to approach this potential problem, Ross said, although no plans have been formalized yet.

"Strikes will affect us quite a bit — our attendees are sensitive to the unions," Ross said. "It's very much on our radar, and this is a very tenacious union."

Not Created Equal?
Union officials say they want to level what they characterize as an unfair playing field in their dealings with hotels.

"Our interest through these negotiations is to have a constructive national dialogue with our largest employers," said Jason Ortiz, senior research analyst for Unite Here. "Our members realized that they were increasingly dealing with billion-dollar multinational corporations, and that dealing with them city by city was akin to fighting a heavyweight boxer with one arm tied behind your back.

"It only made sense to our members that if multinational companies like Starwood, Hilton, Marriott and Hyatt were pouring millions of dollars into every negotiation, and could prolong or instigate a dispute, union members better start approaching them more comprehensively — or risk their pay, healthcare and pensions."

While union officials declined to state all the ways it would leverage broader negotiating power, saying they didn't want to tip their hand, they said they aren't necessarily looking for a contract that applies nationwide, but they do want to discuss reducing the gap in wages from city to city.

Hart, Hilton's COO, said a big company like Hilton would naturally formulate a coordinated response to the various union locals, but the chain essentially considers this a local issue. Hart said he feels optimistic that the two sides will come to an agreement — as long as the union sticks to worker-protection issues.

"There's a lot of concern that these threatened work stoppages are not about benefits and pay," Hart said.

The real issue, he suggested, may be the union's desire to grow by changing the way hotels become unionized. Normally, union organizers approach workers and ask them to express interest in the union by signing a card. After a majority of workers sign cards, the National Labor Relations Board holds a secret ballot for workers to vote for or against establishing the union.

According to Catherine Potter, vice president of communications for the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the union's real goal is to establish "card check neutrality" as the primary recruitment method. That involves eliminating the secret ballot and having the card signing serve as a vote for unionization, as well as prohibiting hotel management from pressuring workers not to unionize.

Agreed Starwood's Scypinski, "This isn't about worker benefits; it's about growing the union. Negotiations are going to come down to this, and not heathcare or wages."

But Unite Here press secretary Amanda Cooper said card check neutrality is only one of many fair, democratic processes used by the union, and suggested the hotel industry is using it as a distraction.

"I can only guess they want to be able to shift the criticism onto the union by calling [the unionizing process] anti-democratic," Cooper said. "But the union doesn't want to be anywhere that a majority of workers don't want us to be. What we want to talk about is what is important to workers."

Unite Here's leaflet campaign at non-union hotels received the support of Change to Win, a labor federation of seven unions formed last year "to renew hope, opportunity, and prosperity for American Workers and their families," according to the group's website.

In addition to Unite Here, the federation consists of a who's who of labor power players: the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; United Food and Commercial Workers; United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America; United Farm Workers of America; Laborers International Union of North America; and Service Employees International Union.