Negotiators for 14 D.C. hotels and the hotel employees union, meeting yesterday after a six-day impasse, reported little headway in resolving substantive issues but said there were enough hints of progress to warrant continued talks.
While the talks were going on, some workers were expressing anxiety about the prospects of a strike. At the city's largest hotel, the Marriott Wardman Park on Connecticut Avenue NW, employees said they wanted more money but were worried about getting caught up in national labor politics between the unions and the hotels.
The next bargaining session is scheduled for Monday, when national Unite Here President Bruce S. Raynor will be available to participate, said John A. Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Local 25.
"We did not check one issue off our checklist. We did not agree on one proposal," Boardman said after the meeting.
"There was progress in the sense that the talks were civil and the dialogue was rational," said Peter Chatilovicz, a lawyer representing the Hotel Association of Washington in the negotiations. "But substantive progress wasn't really evident."
Boardman, who has declared that employees might strike ever since the last round of negotiations broke down Sept. 15, yesterday said a strike is still an option before talks resume. But he did not use the same bellicose language describing a strike as a near certainty that he used a few days ago. And for the first time, Boardman yesterday said the union might accept a new contract that ran longer than two years.
A two-year contract has been a key union demand and one of the most intractable issues in the negotiations. The hotels have insisted on a three-year contract, as has been typical in the past. The union is betting a two-year deal would give it greater bargaining power in 2006, because the D.C. hotel workers' contract would expire at the same time as those in other major cities.
When asked about the two-year issue, Boardman said, "We're looking for a total package here. No single issue is sacrosanct. If they want a three-year deal, they have to put together a deal that is a lot more accommodating to our other demands."
Yesterday, the sides mainly discussed company contributions to an employee pension fund, whether hotels can increase employee workloads without union approval, and whether employees can be disciplined for not getting all their work done when the hotel doesn't have supplies ready for them. There was no accord on any of the three issues, but both sides made modest concessions to the other, Boardman and Chatilovicz said.
There was apprehension at the Marriott Wardman Park yesterday as workers were awaiting news from the talks. Employees said they are nervous about having to march on picket lines, upset that they are not getting higher wages from the hotels and frustrated they are getting caught up in the union's politics to negotiate a deal that will benefit several cities.
"This is all about politics," said Kenneth Hodge, 49, as he helped five of his co-workers move tables and chairs to set up a banquet dinner in a ballroom at the Wardman Park. He has worked at the hotel for seven years and lives in Capitol Heights. "It's a political battle for them," Hodge said of the unions and hotels.
His co-worker Ben Long, 36, added: "And we're in the middle of the sandwich." Long thinks the workers are caught between the New York negotiators the union has brought in to advise Local 25 officials and the lawyers for the hotel.
Another worker, William Hale, 37, said: "It's a shame we're getting caught up in it. We're the ones who make it happen. We turn this room from looking like a schoolroom into a whole, sit-down dinner in 30 minutes."
Long, who has worked at the hotel for 11 years and lives in Silver Spring, said he believes the hotel is making a lot of money and doesn't understand why he can't get a raise.
Hale said, "We're just asking for a few more dollars to live in this economy." He has worked at the hotel for five years and lives in Palmer Park.
Hale and several other workers said they were frustrated by the union's effort to coordinate actions with San Francisco and Los Angeles and to insist that the three contracts expire the same year. The length of the contract appears to be one of the toughest issues for the two sides to resolve. "I can't do anything for San Francisco and Los Angeles," Hale said. "All I know is here, D.C."
The Wardman Park hotel has about 1,100 employees. Of those, about 130 are managers and executives; the rest are union employees who work as housekeepers, front desk clerks, bellmen, cooks and dishwashers. The workers speak at least 23 different languages and come from 44 different countries, including such places as Vietnam, Egypt, Cuba, Romania, Senegal, China, India, Nigeria, Colombia, Ecuador and Haiti.
More than half of the workers have been at the hotel for 10 years or more. Forty-four hourly-paid workers have worked at the hotel, which was originally built in the 1920s, for 30 years or more. The hotel's turnover rate last year was 6 percent -- far lower than the hotel industry's average of 30 percent.
"People stay here because they get comfortable," said Ed Rudzinski, general manager of the hotel. "They spend a lot of time together. They become like family because they rely on each other to make the hotel run.
"The bellman can't take people to their room if the housekeeper hasn't cleaned it and let the front desk know," he said. "It takes relying on each other."
The hotel already has lost two groups reluctant to cross any potential picket line. One, a civil servant group out of New York was supposed to take 900 rooms this week. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture canceled a 250-person sit-down lunch for Wednesday it had planned at the hotel, according to hotel officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing negotiations.
"Whether you're with management or with the union, we need our customers; they're the ones who put paychecks in everybody's pockets," said John Huppman, director of the hotel's food and beverage divisions.
In the hotel's basement laundry room, where dryers and washers whirled and steam from irons hung in the air, four women who are considered the elders of that division stepped into a small office and said they were not eager to see a strike happen. But they said they want to get more respect from managers, be better-paid and keep their good benefits. They say they have been at the hotel a total of 106 years and often work six to seven days a week, up to 13 hours -- if needed.
"We work hard in here," said Jean Williams, 61, who has worked in the hotel's laundry for 37 years and lives in Northwest Washington.
Her co-worker Margarita Flecha, a 53-year-old who is from Puerto Rico and has worked at the hotel for 24 years, said: "They don't want to give us a little bit of help. We don't ask for millions of dollars."
None of the women has ever had to go on strike in their decades of work. Williams said she remembers in the late 1980s when union negotiations went "down to the wire." But one minute after the midnight deadline, Williams said, they got a call from the union leader saying it had been settled. This time, she's not sure how it will go, but she said her house is paid for and she's ready.
"If we can't get what we're asking for, and what we work for and deserve, and if going on strike is the only way we can get it, then we'll go for it," Williams said.