Yesterday afternoon in the spacious lobby of the Marriott Wardman Park, the biggest hotel in Washington, doormen rarely needed to open the door. The cocktail lounge was empty, and bartenders passed the time wiping down a counter that was already clean.
It reflected a sense of quiet unease that characterized both the city's largest hotels and their 3,800 unionized employees as both sides braced for a strike.
Officials of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union said yesterday that a strike at 14 large hotels, whose union contract expired Wednesday, is imminent. The hotels filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming that the Local 25 has not bargained in good faith by refusing to engage in meaningful negotiations. The hotels are seeking an investigation and finding in their favor by the NLRB.
Local 25, the complaint says, has been "spending large portions of the negotiating sessions attacking the Employers' spokesmen, making personal insults and falsely accusing the Employers and their spokesmen of lying rather than engaging in bargaining."
John A. Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Local 25, said the accusations are unfounded. "They're the ones that walked out of negotiations; they're the ones that canceled sessions," he said. "I'm sort of amazed they can come out and say we're the ones not bargaining."
The union is demanding a two-year contract instead of the traditional three-year agreement. Union officials argue that such a contract would give them more leverage against national hotel chains because it would expire in 2006, the same year as those in New York and other major cities. The employers want a three-year contract.
The union also says it wants more protection from increased workloads and abusive managers as well as higher wages than the hotels have thus far offered.
The sides have not met since Wednesday. In a letter to the union yesterday, the hotels offered to resume bargaining Tuesday or Wednesday, expressing hope that the union would reconsider its stance on limiting the contract to two years. After receiving the letter, Boardman said: "We want to bargain a contract, and we'll show up. But I am not inclined to do what they're asking, which is to bargain against ourselves."
The union plans to train picket captains today, and Boardman said workers are generally ready to strike. "We haven't made any decision on when to go, but we should be completely ready to deploy [Saturday] evening." Hotels were also running through final preparations for a possible strike, training managers and, in some cases, replacement workers to clean rooms and wait tables.
The Marriott Wardman Park, which was built in 1928 and has 20 percent more rooms than the next-largest hotel in the city, shows the deep anxiety on all sides of the impasse.
"I'm very disappointed it's come to this," said Ed Rudzinski, the general manager. "We've been through a lot. We went through two years of construction, 9/11, a war, anthrax scares, the sniper shootings, and now a potential strike. Every one of those events affected the workers. If there's no business, they don't work."
Though no strike has been called, the Civil Service Employees Association of New York canceled plans for a five-day series of meetings at the hotel that were to begin this weekend. It is a show of solidarity with the hotel workers, leaving 900 of the Wardman's 1,300-plus rooms empty. Rudzinski said the hotel has managed to fill about 300 of the vacant rooms at the start of next week with business travelers.
The Wardman Park, in planning typical of other affected hotels in the last few days, has lined up 130 managers to be ready to work the jobs of union employees should they strike. His staff plans to bring in workers from some of the other 40 Marriott-run hotels in the D.C. region to fill in other gaps. Those workers will likely spend the night in the hotel so they don't have to cross picket lines to get to work, said Rudzinski, sitting on a couch in his office in the hotel, which is in the Woodley Park neighborhood high over Connecticut Avenue.
"Hopefully things will work out," said Adnan Aziz, a banquet and beverage supervisor at the Wardman Park. "We're all human, we're all here to make a living. We're here to support our families whether we're union or nonunion."
Union workers at the hotel also prepared for tumult.
"I'm nervous," said Hilda Shaffran, a Salvadoran immigrant who is a banquet waitress at the Wardman, where she has worked for 11 years. She supports her 18-year-old daughter, a student at East Carolina University, sending her a check for $1,200 each month, which would be hard to do during a strike.
"I don't know what's going on. I need to work. I have a lot of bills. To tell you the truth, I really don't care about this whole thing. I just need to work. I'm on a team here. I like the hotel. The managers are nice to me," she said.
Other hotel employees were more supportive of a strike. Ninety-four percent of union members voted Monday to authorize a strike, a vote in which 66 percent of members turned out.
Doorman Willie Rose said he's gone to three of the recent meetings the union has held to educate its members about the strike. "I think having a two-year contract will be better because all the hotels will then sign at the same time," Rose said.
His co-worker Sam Solomon, who has worked at the hotel for 24 years and lives in Hyattsville, said, "By being with other hotels, we'll be able to negotiate stronger."
"Now we have 3,500 people, but if we get more people, we can make it much easier to resolve [the deals], compared with what we're going through right now," Solomon said as he stood in the hotel's large curved driveway to hail a cab for a customer who was leaving.
Rose piped back in, "It's like this: With a three-year deal, you're by yourself," he said. "If it's a two-year contract, you're all together. You've got power."
They both said they wanted raises. Hotels have offered a 30-cent hourly raise to the minimum $13 an hour that non-tipped employees currently make while the union's most recent offer is for an increase of 90 cents per hour.
"We work hard out here," Rose said.