Union workers at hotels get a new labor contract

Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business - Louis Marshall, contract organizer, encourages hotel employees from United Here Local 25 as they picket in front of the Capitol Hill Hyatt.

A group of Washington hotels and the union that represents their employees have reached a tentative agreement on a new labor contract 18 months after the previous one expired.

Unite Here Local 25 President John Boardman said the two sides came to a deal late Friday, 24 hours after walking away from the table over terms of the agreement. In the end, workers won a five-and-half-year contract that includes penalties for late pay and, among other things, a 50 percent increase to $2.25 an hour in a pension contribution.

(Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business) - Myron Covington (in sunglasses) leads hotel employees.

“It’s an extraordinary contract,” Boardman said. “It’s long term, protects health care, has great wages ... and the members are ecstatic by the preliminary review.”

Union members are scheduled to vote on the agreement at Asbury United Methodist Church, at 926 11th St. NW, on Wednesday.

“There was give and take on both sides, and we are pleased to have an agreement in place,” said Solomon Keene, president of the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C., which negotiated on behalf of District hotel operators.

Tensions ran high leading up to the agreement.

Members have been working without a contract for nearly two years as both sides reached an impasse on wage increases and pension contributions. Talks resumed at the end of March, but broke down again on April 16.

By Thursday of that week, a cadre of housekeepers, bellhops and doormen were protesting outside the Marriott Wardman in Woodley Park from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The ear-splitting chants could be heard from blocks away. Union workers packed up their signs Friday night, but moved on to the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill the following Tuesday, and then the Mayflower Renaissance Hotel three days later.

The idea was to hit the seven hotels — including the Washington Hilton, Capital Hilton, Embassy Row Hotel and Liaison — bargaining on behalf of the 22 hotels (two others are in separate talks) participating in negotiations. The group of 15 hotels that are not at the table have agreed to abide by the outcome.

Half of the 5,000 unionized workers are employed at the seven target properties. “If we get the major chains and half the workforce to settle, then that will be a deal we can push to the remaining hotels,” Boardman said at the time.

Keene said he was befuddled by the picketing because he believed negotiations were progressing. The operators, he said, proposed raising wages an average 25 percent over the course of a five-year contract, that included a $700 signing bonus upon ratification. A 45 percent increase in pension contributions was also on the table, along with continued full coverage of health care premiums.

“The hotels’ proposal was the longest and most generous in the history of our negotiations with the union,” he said.

Picketing has been an effective tool for Local 25. The union’s persistent protesting outside the Madison Hotel last year caught the attention of city officials, who cajoled the management company, Destination Hotels & Resorts, to settle the dispute. In that case, the new operators, according to the union, refused to honor the existing contract, but came to an agreement after two months of daily protests.

The episode at the Madison held up negotiations on the citywide contract. But Boardman said the delay “wasn’t necessarily a bad thing because it allowed the city, which wasn’t necessarily in bad shape, to get much stronger.”

Enough business and leisure travelers checked into city hotels to send revenue up 4.5 percent in 2011 over the prior year. That positive momentum petered out in the first quarter, but there tends to be a lull in demand in the beginning of the year.

According to Smith Travel Research, room revenue slipped 1.5 percent to $85.10 in that span of time, while rates were down 2 percent. Washington, more importantly, only has 13 citywide conventions on the books this year, compared to 22 in 2011, according to Destination D.C., the city’s tourism agency.

 
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