A photograph appearing in Monday's Metro section showed members of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Lacal 25 picketing Le Bagatelle restaurant while wearing signs saying "Le Bagatelle on Strike." The management of Le Bagatelle, however, says that there is no strike and that 27 of the restaurant's 29 employes have continued to work despite the picket line.
Their current three-year contract with Washington's major hotels and restaurants does not expire for another month, but the 9,600 members of Local 25 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union are preparing for their first strike in 35 years.
In the catacombs beneath Washington's grandest hotels, where maids, dishwashers, busboys, waiters and waitresses gather in employe lounges and company cafeterias, Local 25 members have started pinning on buttons and slapping small blue stickers on walls and doors.
The buttons and stickers carry the same slogan: "For as long as it takes." It is a warning to management that Local 25 is ready to strike Sept. 15 during the peak of the business convention season.
The buttons and stickers are part of a carefully planned union strategy to intimidate management and rally union support. But they also are a sign of how aggressive Local 25 has become under the leadership of its brash and controversial 41-year-old executive secretary, Ron Richardson.
Richardson sent out the strike stickers even though he has yet to draft his union's contract demands and set a date to begin bargaining talks.
Local 25 did not get where it is today, Richardson says, by being timid. And, neither did Richardson, the man credited with making Local 25 this city's largest trade union.
Until April 1, 1975, there was no Local 25. Instead, hotel and restaurant employes were represented by six small unions. Richardson, who was president of the local bartenders' union, led the campaign to consolidate the unions into one bargaining unit and Local 25 was born. He was elected as the local's first and only executive secretary.
Richardson's friends and supporters claim he is one of a new breed of union leaders in this country who are slowly replacing the tough-talking, cigar-chomping union bosses of the past.
Soft-spoken and dressed in carefully pressed suits, Richardson has made Local 25 a national trend setter. It was the first local labor union to win an employer-funded legal program that provides its members with lawyers free whether they are fighting a traffic ticket or a major lawsuit. It was the first Washington-area union to computerize its operations.
And it was the first here to establish a comprehensive dental and optical plan operated jointly by employes and employers.
Some Richardson supporters see him as Washington's next "Mr. Labor," a title that now refers to J.C. Turner, national director of the International Union of Operating Engineers and a one-time Washington power broker.
But Richardson also has his critics outside and inside union circles. Politically, Richardson's union fervor has angered some local Democrats. They claim he refuses to use his predominantly Democratic union to support the District party.
They point to Richardson's frequent clashes with hardware magnate John Hechinger, a Democratic national committeeman, as an example of Richardson's refusal to put the Democratic Party before his union feelings.
Other critics claim Richardson cannot deliver votes at election time. In 1978, Local 25 vigorously endorsed incumbent Mayor Walter Washington. Washington's labor campaign office was in Local 25's building and Local 25 president Minor Christian was Washington's labor coordinator.
Washington lost, but Richardson claims his union made the difference between a respectable loss and a landslide.
If Local 25 is powerless, Richardson asks, why have Mayor Marion Barry and two other potential mayoral candidates already met with him seeking union support and why was he on Barry's guest list last week when the mayor took a group of political power brokers on a Potomac yacht ride?
In union circles, Richardson has been criticized for not unionizing more of the nearly 2,000 restaurants in Washington. Only 5 percent have union representation.
But Local 25 officials point out that the bulk of their membership is employed by the largest and most prominent of the city's hotels and eateries, including such well-known establishments as the Madison and Mayflower hotels and the Sans Souci restaurant.
Besides, Richardson claims, three-fourths of local restaurant employes are undocumented workers, a factor which makes forming unions difficult.
But while Richardson may face criticism from outside his union, his members view him with an almost religious devotion, a zeal that dumbfounds some because more than 80 percent of Local 25's members are from minority groups, mostly blacks, and Richardson is white.
"Ron has made fair and equitable decisions," says Christian, who is black. "It wouldn't matter if he were black, white or green."
In 1980, Local 25 hired an independent Washington polling company to survey its members. Richardson received the highest rating of all local and national union officials and a higher favorable rating that many local politicians.
"I just love him," says Annie Carter, a waitress at the Capital Hilton and union shop steward. "He really cares about the little guy."
One reason Richardson is so popular, explains John Boardman, a union employe, is because he emphasizes serving union members.
Local 25 has eight business agents like Boardman, whose job is to resolve union members' problems, and only three full-time union organizers.
"My job is a cross between being a preacher and an attorney," Boardman explained last week while talking with union members in a kitchen at National Airport.
Boardman started his day by meeting with a supervisor who had fired a 55-year-old union member because she was eating a piece of bread while on duty behind an airport cafeteria counter. The woman had not been in trouble before, Boardman said, so he claimed her dismissal was unjust. After an hour of negotiations, the woman was rehired.
"This is why I got into union work," Boardman says. "We help people who would be helpless without us. That's Ron's first priority."
"If we are doing our job and taking care of our members, then other workers will come to us," Richardson says. "I think that makes more sense than trying to organize a business where the members have not shown an interest in joining a union."
There are exceptions, Richardson says. His union pays picketers to carry placards in front of nonunion hotels and restaurants. Such targets usually are businesses that pay better than union scale, something union leaders see as a threat.
Richardson's philosophy was shaped, in part, during his 10-year tenure as president of what used to be the local bartenders' union. He ran for that job in 1965 after he was fired from a local hotel and received no help from union officials, he says.
"Our union bartenders became such a close group that bartenders from non-union hotels would join it just for the social activities," Richardson recalls.
"That's the kind of atmosphere I think Local 25 has," says Richardson, who claims his members consider the union part of their family.
"They know that if there wasn't a union, they would be treated badly," Richardson says.
"Look at me," says waitress Carter. "I'm 55 now and maybe I was a Miss Washington once but not anymore. You think they'd keep me as a waitress if there weren't a union?"
Richardson understands the family atmosphere. Last month he was married during an elaborate service at the hotel and restaurant union's national convention in Chicago.
The bulk of Local 25 members earned between $6,000 and $12,000 last year and pay $10 per month in union dues. The average bartender earned $240 per week without tips and a waitress earned $2.65 per hour without tips, 64 cents more than nonunion waitresses, according to Local 25 records. Richardson's salary was $33,886.
Most of Local 25's $1.1 million budget was spent on union benefit programs like the medical and optical care packages. Those programs are particularly important to union members who, on the average, must find a new job every two years.
"The reason Ron is so highly regarded by union members ," says Boardman, "is because he really understands our members. He's one of them and he wouldn't ask you to do something he wouldn't be willing to do, even walk picket lines."
At least twice a week, Richardson has been taking a four-hour shift on a picket line outside the Le Bagatelle restaurant. The picket line has nothing to do with the upcoming contract negotiations and stems from a union representation issue.
Hang together, Richardson declares, is what unions are all about. "If this union decides to strike next month, I'll be there," he says.