Friday, April 14, 2006 | Unions representing hotel workers in almost every major city in the United States have launched a campaign this year to unionize more hotels and increase wages and benefits at hotels that already boast union contracts.
The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union asked patrons to boycott hotels it felt were not providing fair contracts. Workers went on strike in New York and Chicago. Former Sen. John Edwards began speaking at the union’s campaign stops.
Those negotiating contracts began to play hard ball.
But in the tourist town of San Diego, the union – known by its acronym HERE – did not push for boycotts. Its workers didn’t strike. No big names on the political scene rolled through town.
And contract negotiators haven’t played hardball – yet.
Officials with the union’s San Diego chapter said that the union is gearing up for a local push later this year. While they have not yet launched a full-scale campaign, their effort to unionize more hotels has already begun in San Diego, a place union officials consider to be on par with other large cities such as Los Angeles in their unionization of hotels.
The union has become politically active in town as well. Last year it gave more than $150,000 toward Councilwoman Donna Frye’s unsuccessful run at mayor, marking its first significant foray into San Diego politics.
Its efforts are paying off. Last Tuesday, the union struck a tentative agreement with Pala Hotel and Casino in Temecula – making it the 12th unionized hotel in the San Diego region. While full details of the pact are not ironed out yet, a spokesman for the union said the plan promises to provide workers with higher wages and better health care benefits.
In addition, the planned Hilton development adjacent to the San Diego Convention Center is expected to be a union hotel. Union officials say their pending campaign to further unionize the region’s hotels will focus on downtown.
But organizing non-union hotels is not the union’s only priority.
Later this year, it plans to push the other side of its campaign by attempting to garner higher wages, better working conditions and improved healthcare benefits in the hotels that are already unionized.
Currently, union workers make on average $10.84 per hour in addition to health care benefits, while non-union workers make between $6.75 and $9.25 and typically do not receive benefits according to a study the union presented to the City Council.
Mike McDowell, executive vice president of San Diego’s Lodging Industry Association said it is not necessary for hotels to be unionized to provide fair wages.
“They’re not necessarily required to be union positions in order to be fair paying,” he said. “We are capable of competing with the unions and yet at the same time it’s obvious that there is a place for them in the structure.”
Union officials intend to become a larger part of that structure this year, but expect their campaign to really gain steam in 2008. By that time, hoteliers plan to add about 4,300 rooms to San Diego’s already sizeable market of more than 54,000 rooms.
The ever-growing need for hotel employees provides leverage for the union, Secretary/Treasurer Jef Eatchel said, because unlike auto or textile industry employees, the workers that his union represents do jobs that can’t be outsourced.
This growing pressure from the hotel unions, coupled with the need for more employees, has some in the industry worried.
This year, the International Society of Hospitality Consultants cited changing labor conditions as the industry’s No. 1 challenge for 2006.
The fact sheet distributed about the challenges states that union contracts expiring this year in New York, Chicago and Boston, pose a challenge to the industry that could “potentially disrupt hospitality operations.”
McDowell said he sees no historical precedent that indicates the unions will stage any sort of massive boycott or strike in San Diego.
“I think that they are just as concerned about keeping people employed and keeping on the table,” McDowell said. “I don’t have any reason to believe that that would be a significant problem here.”
The union’s international chapter said there is a possibility it will bring its national effort to San Diego. For now, it is a matter of resources, said Amanda Cooper, press secretary for HERE’s international offices.
“San Diego is a major city and a major part of our agenda,” Cooper said. “At this point we just don’t have a contract expiring there.”
What did reach San Diego in the past few years, however, is money – specifically campaign funding.
During Donna Frye’s 2005 mayoral bid, the union’s international offices spent more than $147,000 in independent expenditures on the candidate’s campaign, and its local office spent more than $8,100. The union, Eatchel said, had faith in what Frye could do for its employees.
“Donna Frye gets it,” Eatchel said. “She’s been a housekeeper before. She actually knows what the job is.”
That is not to say the new unions are not satisfied with the work of Mayor Jerry Sanders. Eatchel said that his group was content with Sanders’ efforts for the union and commented that the mayor attended one of the unions’ labor breakfasts.
“We actually believed and still do that between that race, there was no real loser,” he said.
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