Last fall, Hawaii nearly lost its biggest citywide convention of the season when the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP) considered cancelling its conference in Waikiki because of unresolved contract disputes between Unite Here Local 5 and the Hilton Hawaiian Village.
With Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle and members of the hospitality industry lobbying hard to save the conference, which represented 28,000 room nights and an estimated $40 million to the local economy, the meeting went forward. However, one of its unscheduled events included a rousing takeover of the Hilton lobby and street protest by union workers, with some IFEBP attendees joining in to show support.
While Waikiki has been a hot spot for hotel union activity in recent months, cities such as Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, Boston and others have all been witness to unrest stemming from an unusually high number of unsettled union contracts this year. While some major long-running disputes have recently been resolved, including those at the Hilton Hawaiian Village as well as Hilton properties in San Francisco and Chicago and six Starwood hotels in Hawaii, others remain.
Why is 2011 unusually ripe for hotel union activity? According to Annemarie Strassel, director of communications for Unite Here, a union representing about 100,000 hotel workers at over 900 hotels in the U.S. and Canada, the recession of the past two years played a major role, with many hotels citing financial hardship as a reason to not incur increased costs for wages and benefits.
“What’s happening is that a bunch of hotel contracts began expiring in 2009 and 2010,” she says. “Normally we can settle contracts near to the expiration dates, but because of the recession the hotel industry has been reluctant to make concessions. So the length of negotiations has been more protracted than in the past.”
Employee contribution to healthcare costs and workload issues are topping the list of crucial issues on the table, according to Strassel.
“A major factor has to do with severe and chronic under staffing, which has worsened since the recession began and hotels began searching for ways to eliminate staff in lots of different classifications,” she says. “At the same time, hotels are under pressure to maintain the same levels of service, so you have workers doing the jobs or two or three people.”
Despite challenges, Strassel says recent dispute resolutions between Unite Here and hotels have showed that positive outcomes are possible, citing the recent agreements with Hilton Hotels as an example.
“The Hilton example is a powerful one in how employers and workers can reach a very fair settlement,” she says. “We were able to resolve healthcare and pension issues as well as keeping staffing levels adequate.”
For many planners, particularly those who plan meetings for associations with policies against crossing picket lines, labor issues are one of the most challenging issues they face. Just how big a concern became evident in a recent Meetings Focus poll of 355 association planners, 84 percent of whom cited labor issues as influencing them either “strongly” or “somewhat” on site decisions.
The poll also showed just how serious the impact of labor issues can be, with 28 percent of the respondents saying that labor strikes at hotels or other venues had led to a meetings cancellation.
Among planners to whom hotel labor disputes are a prime concern is Jan Sneegas, director of general assembly and conference services for the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), who says her organization, which states its commitment to “fair labor practices” in its RFP forms, takes every step possible to avoid meeting at a hotel where a labor dispute is in progress or is likely to happen.
“Our members will not cross a picket line, so we have to keep very current on what is going on,” she says. “For instance, we are booked in Providence [R.I.] for a meeting, but we aren’t signing anything until a labor dispute with the hotel is resolved.”
To keep abreast of such situations, Sneegas says she consults with hotels as well as with representatives from Unite Here. She also monitors the Unite Here website, which has a Hotel Guide feature that lists hotels where labor disputes are in progress or are likely to occur.
“We ask the hotel if they are a union property, we ask when the contract expires, we ask if there are any hints that something contentious could happen,” she says. “And we also ask Unite Here to give us their view.”
Engaging in dialogue with union representatives is something that Sneegas has found beneficial. On occasion, she has even been successful in getting an agreement from the union to not picket at a particular hotel when a UUA meeting is in progress.
“We knew that contracts were expiring in Minneapolis at about the time of our meeting, so we got a letter from the Unite Here local to say that if negotiations fell apart, they would not picket during our meeting,” she says. “If they had picketed, it would have shut us down.”
Along with hotels, Sneegas also researches the overall labor practices in cities that are under consideration for future conferences, but admits that, particularly in the case of multi-hotel meetings, compromises have to be made.
“When I’m planning a citywide convention for 5,000, I can’t always pick and choose the exact hotels I want,” she says. “If everything is equal, we would choose a hotel that is a union property, but that’s not always possible. We just do the best we can.”
Even if a labor strike is not eminent, the general issue of fair labor practices is seen by some planners as an essential part of site selection, much in the same way that sustainability practices are considered important. Among them is meetings consultant and educator Joan Eisenstodt, president of Eisenstodt & Associations in Washington, D.C., who believes the issue goes beyond avoiding labor disputes.
“Unions are not the only issue regarding how employees are treated,” she says. “If for no other reason than good service, planners should look at how employees of any company with whom they are doing business are treated.”
Among her recommendations is to ask hotels and venues about the average length of employment of management and line staff. She also recommends researching business journals in cities under consideration, looking for articles on labor issues.
“On a site inspection or in conversations with venues and vendors, talk also with those who are not in sales,” she adds. “At venues, talk with housekeepers and set-up staff. And eat in the employee cafeteria. See how internal clients are treated and who eats with whom.”
When taking labor practices into consideration for site selection, some planners find that it’s a complicated issue and some have mixed feelings about union tactics. San Francisco-based independent meeting planner Loretta Lowe says that while planners need to pay attention to union complaints, they have to come to their own conclusions about their validity.
“We have the obligation to read the complaint and make our own determination if the union is being ‘unfair’ or if the management is,” she says. ‘“Unfair’ is a subjective term. Is it ‘unfair’ for hotels to have workers pay a higher portion of their health care costs when most of our corporate client companies have had to vastly raise employee contributions? Is it ‘unfair’ for the hotel to have to charge upwards of $120 for a gallon of coffee so that union wages can be met?”
While Lowe says she “absolutely wants to support the hardworking employees in all of our hotels,” she is also bothered by “the aggressive tactics of some organized labor.” She would also like to see more dialogue between labor organizers and the meetings community.
“I would love to see organized labor come talk to the meeting professionals, since our meeting business is a critical area of support for the hotel and for the workers,” she says. “I’d like for them to hear some of our challenges and the way that some (not all) mandated union regulations make our lives very, very difficult.”
For Amy Spatrisano, principal at MeetGreen in Portland, Ore., just how complex it can be to balance labor issues with other concerns surfaced when a client who had chosen a property based on its outstanding environmental policies was suddenly confronted with the likelihood of a union picketing at the hotel.
“This presented a very difficult scenario for my client as they were put in the position of balancing the social—picketing aspect—with the environmental aspects of the hotel, which was by far the most environmentally responsible one in the area, and with the economic impact of breaching their contract with the hotel if they moved,” she says.
Fortunately, when the client chose to move the meeting, MeetGreen was able to negotiate with the contracted hotel for the client not to be charged a cancellation or attrition fee in exchange for promised future business consideration. For Spatrisano, the situation was a wake-up call.
“The situation made me realize that I had been naive in thinking that equally balancing the aspects of people, planet, profit was possible in most scenarios,” she says. “The reality is that’s it’s a continual juggling act between often conflicting aspects.”
Like Lowe, Spatrisano also believes that objectivity when listening to all parties involved in a labor dispute is essential.
“Don’t assume either side is telling you the whole picture,” she says. “Listen to both sides of the dispute. Do your own research into the facts.”