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Howard Stutz

Union Boss Says Hotels Can Avoid Strike

27 January 2006

UNITED STATES -- A nationwide labor dispute involving 60,000 hotel workers in major North American cities could be averted if the hotel industry were to adopt some of the policies major casino companies use, the national union chief for lodging and food service workers said Thursday.

In a conference call sponsored by Wall Street investment house Bear Stearns, UNITE HERE President John Wilhelm told stock analysts and portfolio managers who follow the hotel industry that a nationwide strike by hotel workers could wipe out all the financial gains lodging companies have achieved in the past few years.

Labor contracts at almost 200 hotels in six cities, operated by such national companies as Hilton Hotels Corp., Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Marriott International and Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, will expire this year. Wilhelm said not much has happened yet in the way of negotiations.

Wilhelm said the union -- the parent organization of Culinary Local 226, which represents 60,000 Las Vegas hotel, casino and restaurant workers -- has worked closely with the gaming industry to create programs and structure contracts that benefit both management and workers.

He named the Culinary Training Academy, which prepares workers for casino industry jobs, as one way the union and the casinos have worked together.

"I understand there are some differences between the hotel industry and the gaming industry," Wilhelm said. "Why the gaming industry has embraced that approach toward value-added opportunities and the hotel industry hasn't is a mystery to me. There is no reason we can't move forward."

The pending national dispute would not affect union contracts with Strip resorts. Most of those contracts expire in May 2007; the union's 10-year agreement with Wynn Las Vegas runs out in 2015.

Contracts between hotel employers and the union are set to expire at the end of this month in Toronto, and later this year in Los Angeles, New York, Honolulu, Chicago and Boston. Wilhelm said the workers in those cities represent the bulk of the lodging industry's unionized work force. A labor dispute could affect more than 100 hotels in New York alone.

Wilhelm said a strike by hotel workers is up to the rank-and-file members, but he added that the labor organization is not known as a "strike-happy union."

The union wants higher wages, increased benefits, training and the ability to enroll members more easily.

Toronto, where tourism has slowly recovered from the effect of the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003, could set the tone for the rest of the contact talks, Wilhelm said. Discussions are scheduled to start there soon.

Last year, the union negotiated a three-year collective agreement for workers at two Toronto hotels. Wilhelm called an agreement with the Royal York in the city, "a precedent-setting contract."

"Hopefully, it will send a signal to the rest of the hotel industry in Toronto," he said.

He said the union will negotiate on a city-by-city basis.

"So far, 2006 is shaping up to be a record breaking year in the hotel industry," Wilhelm said. "The industry has recovered from such events as 9/11 and the dot-com crash, as well as SARS in Toronto. This could be an extremely damaging event and it's unimaginable to me that the major hotel companies would interrupt this progress by invoking a labor dispute."

He said the union is not seeking a national labor contract or a standardized wage scale. Wilhelm said the union would prefer to negotiate with the corporate executives of the major hotel chains rather that representatives in each city.

"The present bargaining structure is 60 years old and doesn't work anymore," Wilhelm said. "The key decisions are made in the corporate offices and that's who should be at the bargaining tables."

Wilhelm said UNITE HERE could help the major lodging chains with national issues. For example, he said, the union and hotels could collectively fight pending legislation on illegal immigration in Washington, D.C., that could affect the lower rung of the work force of most major hotel chains.

"The immigration legislation in congress would be disastrous," Wilhelm said. "It imperils all undocumented workers and would make them felons. You're talking about a lot of employees in the hotel industry. But for some reason, most of the hotel industry leadership in uninterested in that type endeavor."