Hundreds of unionized Washington hotel workers rallied yesterday, promising to strike if necessary to get higher wages and better working conditions.
A contract between 14 large hotels and the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 25 expires Sept. 15. It covers 3,800 workers. Twelve hundred other unionized hotel employees who work here are not covered by the same agreement but are expected to use the outcome of the negotiations as a model for their contract.
The tourism industry has rebounded in the past year, with occupancy levels and room rates up sharply from their lows after Sept. 11, 2001. But hotel employment has changed little in recent months. Union officials argue that hotel workers are being overworked to accommodate the increased business.
"The room rates in Washington hotels are substantial," said Bruce S. Raynor, general president of UNITE HERE, the national union that includes Local 25. "Shouldn't the workers who make that possible benefit, too?"
According to Smith Travel Research Inc., hotels in the Washington area had average revenue per available room -- a measure that takes into account both room prices and the occupancy level -- of $86.45 in the first seven months of 2004, up from $75.77 in the comparable period of 2003. The figure is higher than that before the 2001 terrorist attacks, after which the tourism industry was devastated.
The hotel workers, most of whose wages start at $13 an hour and who receive full health benefits, want a $1-an-hour raise and continued free health care. The hotels have not proposed changes in wages and benefits but argue that in recent years their total wage and benefit costs have risen 14 percent because of higher health insurance premiums, and that the industry is still recovering from the 2001 slump.
Nonetheless, negotiations so far have revolved not around pay and benefits but what many of the workers say are poor working conditions and bad treatment by their managers.
The union presented a lengthy list of changes it wants, including demands that managers be banned from bothering workers on their breaks, that waiters not be held financially responsible for diners who walk out of restaurants without paying their tabs, and that employees get new uniforms every six months. The union also want hotels to agree not to increase employee workload -- the number of rooms each maid is expected to clean in a shift, for example -- without first negotiating those changes with the union.
"We want the managers to show us respect," said Maxwell Korvah, 36, who sets up for banquets and other events at the Hilton Washington & Towers.
"The union has presented a contract that changed essentially all the existing contract provisions that we've been working with for many years," said Frank Otero, general manager of the Washington Hilton & Towers and chairman of the Hotel Association of Washington. "We're looking to find a resolution to all these issues because we think that deters us from the main focus of negotiating a good and fair and generous contract."
The two sides are at an impasse on the mechanics of the negotiations. The union wants to allow hundreds of members to be present for negotiating sessions. About 800 members have sat in on negotiations already, said John A. Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Local 25. The hotel representatives want to deal with only a few union negotiators.
"Our position quite honestly is that that setting doesn't allow for a lot of good exchange," Otero said. Hotel officials declined to attend a proposed negotiating session yesterday afternoon, which would have been attended by perhaps 300 union members.
At yesterday's rally, held at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in the District, clergy from local churches expressed their support of the workers and said they have begun collecting food from their congregations to help the workers if they strike.
With less than two weeks to go before the contract expires, Otero said he thinks a strike is unlikely. "The way I see it, we're still in about the fourth inning," he said. "We're looking for a contract. These are things that can be worked out."
Boardman was less confident that a strike would be averted. "We're preparing for a strike because we'd be fools not to," he said. "In any contract situation, responsible leaders prepare for a variety of different contingencies, and a strike is one of the scenarios that could happen."