by Bruce Vail
UPDATE: The full 14-member Baltimore City Council voted unanimously on March 18 to approve a resolution aimed at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore hotel, where a union organizing drive is currently underway. The resolution, passed in a voice vote, calls on Hyatt to sign a ‘Labor Peace Agreement’ to improve hiring practices and to protect the city’s financial interests as a union-sponsored global boycott goes forward.
BALTIMORE—Hyatt Corp received an implicit vote of ‘no confidence’ from the Baltimore City Council late last week when the Labor Committee advanced a resolution to halt the hotel giant’s union suppression efforts.
The resolution pressures Hyatt to sign a ‘Labor Peace Agreement’ that would allow UNITE HERE Local 7’s organizing campaign at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore to go forward without obstruction from managers. Approved in a 3-0 vote on March 14, the resolution now heads to the full City Council, where it enjoys overwhelming support.
A two-hour hearing on the resolution was a one-sided affair at which Hyatt workers and their supporters detailed multiple labor problems at the 488-room hotel. Approxiamtely 100 union backers filled the historic council chamber. Hyatt itself refused to send a representative to publicly defend the company, instead submitting a letter at the last minute pleading for delay of the proceedings.
“Yes, that went well,” remarked UNITE HERE spokesperson Tracy Lingo at the close of the Thursday-night hearing. Lingo credited Labor Committee Chairman Robert Curran (D) for pushing the resolution through. The next steps, she said, are to secure the public support of other local politicians, then sign an agreement to allow a ‘card check’ procedure for union representation at the Hyatt complex located in the heart of the city’s Inner Harbor tourist district.
UNITE HERE’s advance in Baltimore comes as part of its larger ‘Hyatt Hurts’ campaign, launched last year as a global effort to broaden union representation at the company’s hotels. The union campaign also seeks to settle simmering disputes with Hyatt at scattered hotels where UNITE HERE already represents some workers, and where Hyatt is taking a hard line against its own employees.
Hyatt is clearly feeling the campaign pressure; the hotel chain issued a public statement on March 11 lauding new contract settlements with UNITE HERE locals at three widely separated hotels facing labor unrest. The contract settlements affect hotel workers in Philadelphia, Denver and San Diego. The statement also mentions smaller settlements with various units of International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Service Employees International Union, and International Longshore & Warehouse Union. Hyatt’s apparent desire for a semblance of labor tranquility seems to be filtering down to Baltimore as well, where Lingo reports that Hyatt has made a tentative offer to settle a particulay raw grievance by the union that Hyatt hires numerous low-paid temporary workers instead of better-paid permanent employees. That hiring practice denies the temporary workers better wages and benefits, while also hindering the union’s organizing campaign, she said. Hyatt’s tentative offer to increase the hiring of permanent workers is a step in the right direction, Lingo added, but Hyatt needs to make a more explicit commitment in addition to signing a neutrality agreement with Local 7.
Hyatt’s recent softening may be related to widespread reports that President Barack Obama intends to appoint Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker as U.S. Secretary of Commerce . Pritzker, daughter of Hyatt co-founder Donald Pritzker, has been a financial supporter of Obama for years, but has also been criticized for her indifference to union issues inside the family business. Worse, Pritzker is closely associated with efforts to undermine teachers unions, especially the Chicago Teachers Union.
The financial connection between the vast Pritzker family fortune and the top leadership of the national Democratic Party was far from the scene, however, at the March 14 hearing at Baltimore’s City Hall. Instead, the focus was on the day-to-day problems of workers at the Hyatt hotel.
Charlotte Knox, for example, testified that working conditions at the Hyatt Regency have gone downhill over the last 10 years. A housekeeper at the hotel since 1984, she told the committee members that current managers are driving down earnings for the workers who do the hard work of cleaning the rooms and taking care of the building.
Likewise, Regina Davis stood up to challenge Hyatt corporate managers. With three years as a banquet server at the downtown hotel, she proclaimed, “A change needs to be made in the city of Baltimore. I believe that a change at Hyatt can be the beginning.”
Jeff Nelson, research director at UNITE HERE, noted that city leaders “have a lot of power here” based on legal commitments reaching back to 1979 that oblige Hyatt to hire permanent rather than temporary staff, in return for the city’s help in getting a federal grant for the hotel’s original development. “Hyatt has violated the agreements, that’s clear,” Nelson said.
Hyatt also broke faith with the city’s labor leaders 30 years ago when it violated a “hand-shake” agreement not to suppress an initial union organizing drive, testified Ernie Grecco, long-time president of Metropolitan Baltimore Council of the AFL-CIO. He added that all member unions of the Baltimore AFL-CIO are strongly in support of UNITE HERE and the council resolution.
Grecco also warned the council members that the global boycott against Hyatt could hurt business at the Inner Harbor and reduce tax income to the city. Hyatt currently pays some $4.2 million in local taxes, according to city records, almost half of which comes from the room tax charged to travellers who stay at the hotel. “I can tell you that there are some unions won’t come here” for meetings or conventions, because of the labor problems, he said.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (D) concluded the hearing with a pledge of quick action by the full council, perhaps as early as this week. Hyatt’s labor problems “hurts the city,” she said, and elected officials will take action.
Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. This report originally appeared on the Working In These Times blog.