The Hotel and Restaurant Employees International Union announced a major new $2-million-a-year effort yesterday to unionize hotels, restaurants and other facilities in Washington and three other urban areas in what will be one of the most ambitious organizing projects by an AFL-CIO union in recent years.
The union has assembled a 40-member team of organizers, most of them newly hired recent college graduates, who will target hotels in Washington, Boston, Chicago and Orange County, Calif., for expansion of the 400,000-member union.
"We are absolutely convinced that many workers want to be organized . . . and we think we can have national impact" in demonstrating the ability of unions to organize new members, Vincent J. Sirabella, the union's director of organizing, said at a news conference at the union's new international headquarters here.
The drive comes at a time when many cities, including the District, are experiencing explosive growth in the service sector of the economy. That growth is creating thousands of new jobs for people who provide food, lodging, entertainment and other services.
Overall union membership has declined steeply in recent years, partly because of labor's inability to organize large numbers of service workers.
The union has recruited its new organizers through newspaper advertisements in target cities. The advertisements offered college graduates the chance for "long hours, hard work and modest wages" of $300 a week.
The union received nearly 500 applications and has hired new organizers from colleges including Yale, Georgetown, the University of Maryland, Howard University and others.
"We have zealous, young, idealistic people" committed to the union, said Sirabella. "We are absolutely convinced there are still a lot of young, people-oriented people who get a sense of outrage when people get screwed-over by large corporations" and want to unionize.
The young organizing team met yesterday with AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, who gave them a pep talk and praised the plan, union officials said.
Sirabella, 63, a ninth-grade dropout who joined the union as a 16-year-old dishwasher, has been widely credited with engineering new growth in his union. He hired young, college-educated organizers in Connecticut, gaining more than 5,000 new members, including employes of Yale University. The new effort is an expansion of that "experiment," he said.
Sirabella acknowledged that some hotels, particularly the Marriott chain, present "special problems" to unions because they pay wages and benefits comparable to union hotels. Marriott, with 150 hotels nationwide, has successfully resisted dozens of organizing efforts and has only parts of two hotels unionized.
David Townshend, marketing director of the J.W. Marriott Hotel here, said the hotel chain pays "a fair wage for a fair day's work. We are very selective about the type of personnel we hire . . . . We are not against unions. We are pro-employe. We don't feel we need a third party to act as a voice" for workers.
Ron Richardson, president of the union's Local 25, which represents about 10,000 workers at 30 hotels and dozens of restaurants in the Washington area, said he was hopeful the new effort could reverse the recent trend of most new hotels here operating without unions. The union represented almost all major hotels until five years ago, when the Four Seasons in Georgetown opened as a nonunion hotel and resisted organizing efforts. At least 28 District hotels are nonunion, as are all the suburban Virginia and Maryland hotels.
Spokesmen for the Hotel Association of Washington were not available for comment.