For the past month, the Greenbrier, a luxurious resort hotel here in the Allegheny Valley that has been a favorite of Washingtonians for generations, has been closed due to employes' strike. Prospects for a rapid settlement appear dim because of wide differences between labor and management. s
The resort has been forced, in effect, to write off its winter season. Meanwhile the strike is beginning to be felt by this community which normally drives a major portion of its income from the hotel.
Unlike its principal competitor, the Homstead in nearby Hot Springs, Va., the Greenbrier has no ski facilities and therefore depends on activities such as wine and financial seminars. Over the 12-day Christmas and New Year period, the hotel was booked to capacity. It had to cancel between 1,100 and 1,200 guests at an estimated loss of more than $1 million.
Based on last year's attendance figures, multiplied by $100 a day per guest, The Washington Post estimates that Greenbrier's losses since Dec. 15 at about $1.5 million. Although closed to the public, the Greenbrier currently houses in one wing about 20 guests who are patients at an independent diagnotic clinic on its grounds. It decided to make an exception for these people, many of whom have been staying there for years while undergoing their annual physicals.
The Greenbrier is owned by CSX Corp., the successor company to the Chessie System and Seaboard Coast Line Industries, which recently merged. CSX, now based in Richmond, refused to discuss strike losses or contract negotiations as did the hotel management. It also declined to allow a reporter and photographer to enter the hotel grounds for what it called security reasons.
The Greenbrier is the largest employer in this town of 3,300 and its environs. It has a staff of 1,100 full-time and 300 part-time employes. Between 80 percent and 90 percent of them live in this area. During the November-to-March off season, the work force is reduced to 900, about two-thirds of whom are full time.About 300 of these employes are nonunion and continue to work in the hotel.
As for the 600 on strike, town Mayor John Bowling estimates they have thus far foregone wages amounting to between $200,000 and $250,000. "That's a big economic loss in a small community like this," said Bowling who runs the local hardware store.
Moreover, ancillary industries also are feeling the pinch. The number of passengers arriving at Lewisburg Airport 12 miles away is off 75 percent to about six people on each of its three daily flights, according to Piedmont Airlines. Greenbrier Airlines' motto is "To charter is smarter." It may not seem very smart these days to be dependent on the Greenbrier and the Homestead for 80 percent of one's business, but Oscar Tate, who has been flying vactioners here since 1939, isn't worried. "We are in no trouble now," he said.
Taxi Inc. is a limousine service between the airport and the Greenbrier, where 98 percent of its customers are haeded. Manager Jeffrey Hoover says he has driven just 12 persons to the resort since Dec. 15. "The only mileage I put on the limo these days is to and from work," he said.
Bowling's hardware business is off 30 percent this month. A drug store operator says customers are buying only necessities. Hotel employes living in a trailer park off Main Street are said to be getting behind on their rent. On the other hand, the strike has proved a boon for the Colonial Court motel, as the overflow of clinic patients has kept its 16 rooms occupied in an otherwise dead season.
The origins of the strike date back at least to June of last year when the Hotel and Restaurant Employees AFL-CIO Local Union 863, the largest of eight striking unions, filed suit against the Greenbrier to recover an estimted $2 million in back gratuities plus interest. The union claimed that management had illegally withheld from its members approximately $1.70 out of the daily $5.50 service charge it levied on guests.
According to James A. Searle, Jr., the Greenbrier's director of sales and marketing, the union signed a contract December 1977 agreeing to those terms. Not so, said Greenbrier Spinks, Local 863's business manager, employes did not realize they would be getting only a percentage of the service charge.
Despite management's demands that the union drop the suit in exchange for an increase of between 10 percent and 11 percent in its wages-benefits package for the next contract, Spinks days they are determined to go ahead. The case is due to be heard in court Feb. 10.
Asked about the possibility of an out-of-court settlement, Spinks replied there was no chance, Searle refused to comment and Mayor Dowling said it was likely. Spinks added that the AFL-CIO has suggested that the suit, which could be tied up in court for months, be separated from other contract issues such as wages, insurance, sick leave, vacations and grievance procedures. She said management agreed to consider the possibility of continuing negotiations independent of the suit, but emphasized no decision had been reached.
Management has had several meetings with the unions but no progress is reported. Attempts at arbitration have bogged down over the selection of an arbitrator. West Virginia law provides for the commissioner of labor to mediate disputes. However, the present commissioner was previously involved in the service charge disagreement. So management would perfer an independent federal arbitrator, but the locals cannot afford the considerable cost without support from the international.
Thus far the locals, which have no strike benefits funds, have received $1,500 in donations from brother unions. Two hundred members have signed up for food stamps. Some get government child support. The Greenbrier claims its employes are among the best paid in the entire hotel industry in this country. Spinks, a former waitress who together with her gardner husband earned $17,000 a year, charges management would have to hire nonunion help at lower wages, as the Homestead does.
The members are pinning their hopes on receiving unemploymnt compensation, although Spinks admits they have no more than a 50-50 chance of getting it. Their claim is based on the assertion that this is not a strike but a lock-out. Spinks alleged that management refused to allow employes to continue working on a day-to-day basis while contract negotiations were taking place, but wanted them to agree to work instead for a specified number of days or weeks while talking. The contract ran out at the height of the Greenbrier's winter season, so it did not wish to risk employes walking out on a full house.
Spinks, who spent 17 years in the Greenbrier dining room, complains along with her cohorts that her former employer is out to bust the unions, a charge denied by both management and observers. She observed that the local hotel had invited furloughed employes to return Jan. 5. "They know that if they can get enough people to cross the picket lines, there would be no unions," she said.
Though considerable numbers voted not to strike, all union members have refused to cross the lines and taken turns manning eight outdoor posts in four hour shifts 24 hours a day even when the temperature dipped below zero. One of the ironies produced by the symbiotic relationship of hotel and town is the daily sight of men or women driving their spouses or relatives to work inside the gates, waving a friendly greeting to the guards, and then returning outside to picket. One family of five brothers who are all employes find themselves almost equally split between union and nonunion; they joke about it.
Although tacks reportedly were sprayed on the hotel driveway, the mood on the line is still friendly, nonviolent. Yet Spinks warns that "things could get out of hand if it continues much longer." She tells of the mounting unrest of secretaries being called on to clean toilets, golf pros to tend boilers.
How much longer can the strike continue?
Greenbrier employes are accustomed to gorging themselves fat like squirrels on acorns during the summer in prepartion for lean winters, so missing a paycheck or two is not a real hardship. "I have no [financial] problems," said Mary Jane Rudisill, a maid for the past 17 years. "You can do it when you have to," observed Carol and Sherman McCartney, laundry workers for 10 and six years respectively. They make do on $150 a month in child support instead of $1,000 normal combined income. Peggy Sparks, a maid for the past 13 years, declared for herself and her striking husband, "Our neighbors have said they won't let us starve."
Ronald Cruse, a hotel upholsterer who says there just are no other jobs open in White Sulphur Springs, nevertheless says he and his family of three can "exist" until spring. And Raymond Wilmer, a bellman who is hoping to draw $48 a week in unemployment compensation, boasts, "We'll hold out untili we get what we want. Luckily my wife works elsewhere."
Oscar Tate of the charter service predicts the strike will end within a fortnight. Mayor Bowling foresees another month. Union leader Spinks says the hotel will have to get back into business by March 15, date of its first convention, and in time to prepare the greens for spring golfing. Executive Searle declined to say how long the hotel was prepared to hold out or what its contengency plans might be.
The last time the Greenbrier took a strike was back in 1960. It lasted for three weeks. In Bowling's opinion, management won that one by getting the contract expiration date changed from mid-June, during the hotel's busiest season, to mid-December. Does he think management will win this time? "I think it will end in compromise," he responded.