Negotiators for 14 major District hotels walked out of contract talks with the union that represents 3,800 employees yesterday afternoon, raising the prospect of a work stoppage as early as today at the city's largest hotels.
The previous contract covering the workers expired last night at midnight. Union officials said they plan to hold meetings today with members to sort out the logistical details of a strike, and hotel officials said they are finalizing plans to have managers work long hours to keep the hotels open. Still, both sides said they are open to last-ditch negotiations today if the other side will show a willingness to compromise.
Labor and management have been facing off for weeks over working conditions and other issues at the hotels, which include the city's three biggest: the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, the Hilton Washington & Towers and the Grand Hyatt Washington. The hotels that may face a strike account for almost 28 percent of the city's hotel rooms, although the union could choose to strike at only some of the 14 hotels.
The impact of a major hotel strike or lockout on Washington -- and its tourism sector -- could be significant.
"If a strike happens, the impact will be big," said Larry Yu, a professor in the Tourism and Hospitality Management Department at George Washington University. "Many of the top and mid-scale hotels the city relies on to cater to the tourism market would be affected, and fall is the peak season of the hotel industry."
Each side blamed the other for the breakdown in talks. "We're still prepared to sit down and negotiate, but when they stood up and walked away from the table, it was a powerful message that they do not want to bargain anymore," said John A. Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 25.
"It became clear around 4 p.m. that the union was not going to negotiate in good faith over wages and benefits and that a deal could not be reached," said Frank Otero, chairman of the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C., and general manager of the Hilton Washington, in a written statement.
The tense negotiations in Washington are part of an escalating national battle between Unite Here, the parent union of Local 25, and major hotel chains. Union hotel workers in Los Angeles and San Francisco were also threatening yesterday to strike if they cannot reach a deal.
The talks in Washington and on the West Coast represent an aggressive push by Unite Here to transform hotel negotiations from local disputes into a national affair. Officials of the union argue that workers will have leverage with big international hotel chains only if workers in multiple major cities can threaten to strike simultaneously. The strategy assumes that companies such as Marriott International Inc. and Hilton Hotels Corp. that could easily ride out a strike in one major city might be more gun-shy if their business is at risk in several major markets.
"Giant corporations will face a union equal in size and strength to stand up to them," Bruce S. Raynor, president of Unite Here, said at a news conference in Washington yesterday featuring hotel workers from all three cities. The negotiations are the first stage in the attempt to nationalize hotel negotiations. In a major point of contention, the union seeks two-year contracts in each of the three cities, instead of the customary three-year agreements, so that the contracts will expire in 2006, the same year as contracts in New York, Chicago and Boston.
Local 25 also says it seeks to improve work quality and restrict hotels' ability to increase employees' workload. It wants a $1-per-hour raise each year for employees who do not customarily receive tips, who now make $13 an hour.
Representatives of the D.C. hotels argue that their employees shouldn't risk their livelihoods for the sake of a multi-city dispute and that it is in their interest to insist on a standard three-year contract. They say that working conditions are good in hotels and that workload issues should be dealt with on a hotel-by-hotel basis. They add that they have offered to continue providing employees free health insurance and have offered a raise of 30 cents an hour each year to employees who do not get tips.
A strike or lockout would be uncharted territory for the travel business in Washington. Labor negotiations in the city have generally been restrained affairs in years past; three years ago, the sides reached agreement on the current contract several days before the deadline.
The tense negotiations underway, labor experts say, signal an aggressive new approach by the national hotel union, which merged with the textile workers union Unite earlier this year to form Unite Here, led by Raynor.
"Raynor is a bomb-thrower president of those combined unions now," said Bill Adams, a consultant who advises companies, including in the hotel industry, on their labor relations strategy but has no clients involved in the current negotiations. "He's probably the most militant labor leader out there."
To those more sympathetic to the union, the aggressive steps are what's needed to defend middle-class pay and benefits.
"When you see the nationalization of all these companies, it makes sense to see nationalization of some of the bargaining," said Beth Shulman, an author and former vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers.