In a bitter election campaign that could have a significant impact on Washington's hotel industry, Ron Richardson, the influential head of the District's 8,000-member hotel workers union, is being challenged by several union officials seeking to oust him as the union prepares for negotiations with the city's major hotels.
Richardson, 46, who has headed the bartenders and hotel workers unions here for 20 years, is opposed by Phinis Jones, 38, a union vice president and former D.C. City Council aide who heads a five-member opposition slate that is seeking to take over leadership of Local 25 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union.
In a campaign waged in the kitchens, bars and back rooms of Washington's 25 unionized hotels and in scores of restaurants and cafeterias, the sides are trading allegations of financial mismanagement, racism and patronage within one of the area's largest unions.
Washington's unionized hotels are staffed mostly by black and Hispanic workers whose pay averages about $7 an hour and who frequently turn to Local 25 for assistance in disputes over pay, benefits, discipline, promotions, work rules and numerous grievances that inevitably arise in their labor-intensive work places.
"I am a bartender with a big mouth. That's what my members elected me to be, that's what I want to be," Richardson said in a recent interview. He credited his aggressive manner and experience in bargaining for a steady improvement in union members' pay and benefits, which he cites as his major accomplishment.
Jones' slate, in campaign literature, describes Richardson as a "petty dictator . . . who claims to care about workers, but only cares about himself, his power, his huge salaries, his trips to expensive resorts, and his cronies."
Richardson, who as executive secretary-treasurer holds the highest administrative post in his union, receives a salary of $45,000 a year from the local union. He also was paid a second salary and expenses totaling $65,619 in 1985 because he serves as an international vice president of the 400,000-member national hotel employes' union.
Funded by union dues of $18.50 a month and initiation fees of $100, Local 25 operates on a $2 million yearly budget with a staff of 25 officers and employes. Under union bylaws, Richardson can hire and fire virtually everyone. His patronage grip and high political profile in the city give him strong control over union affairs, and make him unlikely to be defeated, according to several industry sources.
"I assumed, with Ron's powers, he was president-for-life. But after Marcos in the Philippines and Duvalier in Haiti, anything can happen," said a city official who is familiar with the union and who asked not to be identified.
Hanging over the campaign are the upcoming negotiations with the Hotel Association of Washington, which has already told the union it will seek cuts in labor costs because its member hotels have suffered a 10 percent drop in room occupancy in the last year.
"We are going through a very difficult time" because of the overbuilding of hotels in the District and its booming suburbs, said Peter Chatilovicz, chief management negotiator for the unionized hotels. All of the new suburban hotels and several in the District are nonunion and enjoy lower total labor costs, forcing the unionized hotels to seek reductions to stay competitive, he said.
Before the hotel building boom here of the past few years, the area's hotel business was about 75 percent unionized, but Local 25's inability to organize the new nonunion and suburban hotels has left it representing only about 25 percent of the work force.
The three-year contract with the hotels expires in September. Richardson said he is preparing for a citywide hotel strike, which he said is a strong possibility if management pushes for substantial cuts.
"Ron has started rattling sabers," said Chatilovicz, who predicted "tough negotiations" but said the hotels would be seeking only "modest" cuts.
Richardson's supporters said Jones' lack of experience in negotiating contracts could damage the union's position in upcoming citywide bargaining. Jones said Richardson's accomplishments are exaggerated and his style of negotiating is secretive and undemocratic.
Jones, in one of his major criticisms of Richardson, accused him of weakening the union by squandering the "strike fund" set up three years ago through a special $1.94-a-month assessment on members. Jones said Local 25 should have a war chest of more than $500,000, but has only about $60,000 because funds were diverted to other purposes.
Richardson said the fund was depleted because Local 25's executive board approved his plan to hire unemployed workers at about $50 a day as "rent-a-pickets" to carry picket signs outside nonunion hotels as a pressure tactic to win union recognition. That tactic has been largely unsuccessful and has been curtailed, he said. Strike funds were also used for several new union organizers, he said.
Mudslinging about racial issues and finances has dominated the campaign, which ends when mail ballots are counted on Wednesday. Jones, who is black, has accused Richardson, who is white, of creating "racial tension" by failing to hire and promote minorities. The union is more than 80 percent black and Hispanic, and about two-thirds of the staff is black or Hispanic.
"Phinis ran out of issues, so he injected race. Race is not an issue in this union," Richardson said. "This union is the closest thing to a true Rainbow Coalition -- white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Central American, Middle Eastern, and we work together against bosses and hotel managers, and not against each other."
Richardson accused Jones during the campaign of a potential conflict of interest because Jones has an interest in a printing firm, Capitol Services Inc., that has done several thousand dollars worth of business with the Howard Inn, a union hotel where Jones represented members. Jones acknowledged his interest in the printing business but denied any wrongdoing, and said he had no advance knowledge of the printing job for the Howard Inn.
Richardson, long active in District Democratic politics, was an adversary of Mayor Marion Barry in 1982, but this year has signed on as a member of Barry's reelection finance committee. An aide to Barry said the mayor has not endorsed a candidate in the Local 25 election campaign.