A Sept. 24 Business article on hotels and union organizing incorrectly identified Mike DeFrino. He was the original general manager of the Hotel Monaco but is now vice president of East Coast hotel operations for San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotel Group. The article also incorrectly said that the Mandarin Oriental Hotel is in the Penn Quarter; it is in Southwest Washington. (Published 9/25/04)
Three years ago, before the trendy Hotel Monaco in Washington's Penn Quarter filled its goldfish bowls and tucked in its high-thread-count sheets, managers went to a local human resources association to see what the unionized hotels in the area paid employees.
To make sure it would not attract the attention of union organizers and could hire sufficient workers, the Hotel Monaco matched union wages.
"I think that as hoteliers, we try very, very hard to ensure that we are competitive, offering competitive salaries and benefits to our nonunion employees to discourage them from feeling they have to organize," said Mike DeFrino, general manager at the Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group Inc.'s Hotel Monaco. "The idea of a happy workforce is not just because happy employees make happy guests, but also because it's an important element if they're approached to consider organization."
Hotel Monaco has escaped union organizing activities. But 14 major District hotels are negotiating a labor contract, and unions have threatened to strike at some or all of those hotels if an agreement is not reached. Negotiations are set to continue Monday.
Twenty-six of the District's 125 hotels employ union workers, and that accounts for 45 percent of the full-service hotel rooms. That compares with about 90 percent in New York City and 85 percent in San Francisco. John A. Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 25, said the unions were especially unsuccessful organizing Washington hotels built in the 1980s. Those hotels remain nonunion.
Most hotels in the District that have union workers are older, like the Hyatt Corp.'s Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, which was organized years ago when the unions were stronger. Fewer of the new hotels, like the Grand Hyatt on H Street NW, are union, because in Washington in particular, hotels "really tend to dig in and resist," said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley specializing in labor issues.
Of the 10 largest hotels in Washington, the six built before 1980 are union, while the four built after 1980 are nonunion. In the past two decades, labor membership has dropped, and newer hotels have been successful in keeping unions at bay.
Boardman said New York and San Francisco had a difficult time organizing, but "they're just better at it." He said the New York and California locals have had exceptionally skilled staffs that have been able to put up long, hard fights to organize hotels.
There have been some recent organizing successes in the District. Unite Here succeeded in organizing Hilton Hotels Corp.'s Hilton Crystal City and Felcor Lodging Trust Inc.'s Sheraton Premiere Tysons Corner in Vienna in the past few years. And at Classic Hospitality's State Plaza Hotel in Foggy Bottom, employees voted Sept. 5, 2003, to start a union, but the hotel has resisted. The National Labor Relations Board recently told the company it had to recognize the union, but workers still do not have a contract. The hotel can appeal.
Union efforts also have been helped by a law passed by the D.C. Council in late 2002 requiring new hotels that receive public funds for construction from the District government to open themselves up to unions if their workers vote to organize. As a result of that bill, workers at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group's property in Penn Quarter received a contract in July.
The pay at full-service union and nonunion hotels is about the same -- about $13 an hour -- or sometimes a bit higher at nonunion hotels, according to labor and hotel officials. Unions say the difference is that workers in union hotels are better protected if a problem arises at work, and they get better health benefits.
"Nonunion workers make about the same hourly wage, or a nickel or two more than union," said Amanda Cooper, spokeswoman for Unite Here. "But they don't have affordable health, no optical, no pension. And they have none of the safeguards in terms of filing a grievance. They don't have those same kinds of protections as [those with a] union contract."
DeFrino agreed that employees at his hotel must pay a portion of their health coverage. But, he added, union employees must pay dues. Cooper said those dues are $47.50 a month.
"There is a shadow effect. Unions are strong enough in D.C. that other hotels that try to remain nonunion will try to match their pay and benefits," Shaiken said. "But what they don't give is this broad sense that they have security on the job as well as a stronger wage and benefits package."