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Hotel Talks Show Mixed Progress

By Neil Irwin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2004; Page E01

The hotel business in Washington has largely bounced back since Sept. 11, 2001, argue some of the 3,800 hotel workers threatening a strike, but not for them.

That perception is shaping negotiations this week between 14 major District hotels and their employees, members of Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 25.

Union workers talk during a break in negotiations, which are taking place at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church. Workers have authorized a strike. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

Workers at D.C. Hotels Vote to Authorize Strike (The Washington Post, Sep 14, 2004)
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"Things are back to normal, but we aren't benefiting," said Bruce Banks, a 27-year veteran of the room-service operation at the Hilton Washington & Towers who was laid off for nearly a month after the terrorist attacks and had to borrow money from family members to pay his bills.

Banks and other union workers interviewed yesterday said that after a tumultuous three years, hotels have refused to increase staffing to accommodate crowds of visitors, forcing employees to work harder without additional pay.

Hotel executives argue that business remains mixed and that payroll costs have risen 14 percent over the last three years because of rising health care costs.

"We've been trying to bring up staffing levels to meet business demand," said Frank Otero, chairman of the Hotel Association of Washington and general manager of the Hilton Washington & Towers. "We were pleasantly surprised at how business picked up this spring, and we've been trying to hire."

The contract covering employees at 14 major hotels expires at midnight tonight, and union members have authorized their leaders to call a strike if they decide it's necessary. The two sides reported only mixed progress in discussions yesterday on work-quality issues. Other key elements of a contract -- pay and benefits and the length of an agreement -- had yet to be taken up.

Also yesterday, hotel workers in Los Angeles and San Francisco, whose contracts have already expired, voted to authorize a strike. The national hotel workers union Unite Here said the coordinated moves were an effort to gain leverage in negotiations with major hotel chains by raising the prospect of a walkout in several major cities at once.

Outside Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, where the negotiations have been taking place, union members said conditions on the job have worsened since their last contract was signed three years ago.

To Eva Johnson, a 49-year-old Salvadoran immigrant who has cooked room-service meals at the Marriott Wardman Park for a decade, the little things make a difference.

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