Nearly 2,000 hotel maids, bartenders, busboys, waiters and waitresses voted overwhelmingly yesterday to strike Washington's major hotels Wednesday unless hotel owners substantially increase their most recent contract offer.
The vote sets the stage for a walkout of the 6,000 union members covered by the contract unless a new one is agreed upon by midnight Tuesday.
"Shall we tell management to stick this contract in their ear?" called out Ron Richardson, the union's executive secretary and chief negotiator during the rally in the A.M.E. Methodist Church, at 15th and M streets NW, yesterday evening.
"Let's strike, strike, strike," replied the standing and cheering crowd of union members.
Serious negotiations between the Hotel Association of Washington, which represents 24 of this city's largest hotels, and the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 25, began last Wednesday, but both sides admit they are still far from agreeing to a new three-year contract.
Richardson said yesterday that the negotiations are the toughest he's ever faced. So far, hotel officials only have agreed to four minor changes, he said, the most major being a clause that would allow employes to put Mr., Miss or Mrs. on their employe name tags so that they would no longer be addressed by their first names.
Richardson said a strike, which would be the first one against hotels since 1946, would be a "serious" step that would only be taken as a last measure. But he added that it might be necessary to show "fat hotel owners that their employes are tired of their hard work going to line the pockets of millionaires who own hotels."
Union officials said they are particularly worried because several major hotels have reportedly brought in extra supplies and additional nonunion personnel in preparation for a strike.
While officials counted a secret ballot vote on the strike, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called for union members to stand up for their rights "during this time of persecution." Jackson will head a local "strike justice committee" for the hotel workers that will include Washington congressional Del. Walter Fauntroy and other prominent Washingtonians.
So far, the Hotel Association of Washington has refused to offer the union a complete counterproposal to the union's original offer which listed 75 demands. Rather, hotel association negotiator Allen G. Siegel has concentrated on trying to deal with the union's proposal to increase the average weekly salary of union members by $32 each year for three years for a total of $96 over the life of the contract. That would raise the average hotel worker's hourly pay 93 cents, from $4.65 to $5.68.
The hotel association countered late Saturday with an offer of just under $11 a week that would be spread out over a three-year period and add up to a total of $32. Local 25's Richardson has labeled that proposal "ridiculous." In 1978, the union and hotel association settled on a total of $39 spread out over three years.
A key reason Richardson and his union are expected to reject the $32 offer is because it would move the contract expiration date from Sept. 15, the beginning of a peak convention period, to Dec. 15, a time when Washington has few conventions. Such a move would substantially weaken the union's prime weapon, the strike.
"Who would care if we striked in December?" Richardson explains.
Besides wages, sources for the union and hotel association said both sides also are deadlocked on three other major issues. They include the arbitration procedure now used by the hotels and union to resolve employe disputes; the union's demand that all promotions and benefits be allocated solely according to seniority; and more pay for expenses involving group tours.
The hotel association claims the group tour demand in particular will hurt business by increasing the cost to tours which come to Washington. "We already are losing tour business to the suburbs," a hotel manager explained. "If we have to pay employes more for helping accommodate tours, no one will stay in Washington hotels."
During weekend negotiation sessions, Richardson agreed to trim 25 of the union's original 75 demands. Included in the cuts were the union's request for a 35-hour work week and overtime pay for employes who work Sundays. Both of those demands were seen as major stumbling blocks by the hotel association, which reciprocated by upping their wage proposal from $30 to the current $32.
Despite complaints from Richardson, the hotel association has refused to make any counteroffers on any proposal besides wages, sources said. Rather, the association apparently intends to wait until hours before the current three-year contract expires before countering the union's benefit demands and other changes in policy.
"They (the association) are playing it awful close to the vest and being quite hard-lined this year," a source involved in the negotiations said. "I just hope it doesn't cause a strike."
Union members at yesterday's rally made it clear that the national "Solidarity Day" labor protest scheduled here next Saturday would not keep them from striking even though top union officials from across the country have made reservations in Washington hotels for the event.
They applauded when Richardson promised that union dignitaries plan to be on the street manning picket lines if a strike occurs.