Mayor Marion Barry, D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke and the Rev. Jesse Jackson turned out for an unusual "contract negotiation rally" yesterday to voice support for the District's 8,000-member hotel workers union, which is facing difficult bargaining with the city's 28 union hotels.
The prounion rally, which was criticized by the Hotel Association of Washington, featured appearances or messages of support from eight council members, four members of Congress, two D.C. school board members, and a host of influential ministers and union officials. It was intended as a show of political muscle to bolster the morale of a large, politically active union that is approaching negotiations from its weakest position in recent years, according to industry sources.
It was also an election-year opportunity for District politicians to repay Local 25 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union for its financial and political support, especially in the case of Barry, who was opposed by the union in his 1982 Democratic primary, but who now has union chief Ron Richardson as one of his prime fund-raisers.
"What you stand for is right . . . . You are just outstanding people, who have been abused and kicked around for a long time," Barry told the standing-room crowd of 500 union members who jammed the Shiloh Baptist Church. "But you decided you would not let people kick you around. You have decided to demand respect . . . . Let us march on till victory is won."
Jackson, who has been addressing many union rallies throughout the nation, called the hotel workers "freedom fighters" who often are treated like "nameless, faceless nonpersons wearing a uniform."
He urged them to strongly resist management demands for concessions or threats to job security.
Clarke, alluding to the upcoming contract bargaining with the hotels, told the workers, "The difficulties that you may face in coming days should not daunt you in your search for justice . . . . Justice is on your side, and the city council is also."
Five council members -- Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8), John Ray (D-At Large), Frank Smith Jr. (D-Ward 1), Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6) and Hilda H.M. Mason (Statehood-At Large) -- are serving on a D.C. Hotel Workers Support Committee.
"I am bothered," said Peter Chatilovicz, chief management negotiator for the Hotel Association. "I think government officials and heads of the city should only get involved in negotiations when a really, really difficult situation arises. It is disturbing, because negotiations are not a political event. Negotiations are a give-and-take to reach a fair contract.
"What is the basis for Ron Richardson getting all those dignitaries there?" Chatilovicz said. ". . . I think Ron wants to rile up the troops at a time when the troops don't need to be riled up. I think they are getting good employment, good wages and benefits, and the hotels are pretty good places to work."
Leonard Hickman, executive vice president of the association, also expressed displeasure with the rally. "It is an election year," he said.
"This is people power," said Richardson, executive secretary-treasurer of Local 25, who said he organized the rally partly to demonstrate to hotel management the depth of community support for his union members.
Richardson told the cheering crowd that the hotels would be demanding "takebacks and concessions" and vowed that the union would strike, if necessary, to resist.
Barry, in an interview, denied he was taking sides in the negotiations that cover 6,000 workers whose contract expires Sept. 15.
"I am friends with the union, and I am friends with management. The Hotel Association supports me, too," he said, noting that the hotels have donated to his reelection campaign and that a Hyatt Corp. executive serves on Barry's finance committee -- along with Richardson.
Local 25, whose members earn an average of $7 per hour, is facing its most difficult bargaining in recent years, because the city's hotels have been faced with sagging occupancy rates below 70 percent, the association said. This problem largely stems from the overbuilding of hotels throughout metropolitan Washington, which has more than 43,000 rooms.
Before the 1980s hotel-building boom here, the union represented about 75 percent of the city's hotel business. But with the opening of nonunion hotels in the District, Maryland and Virginia, Local 25 has failed to organize new hotels and now represents about 25 percent of the industry -- a situation that weakens union bargaining power.
"This is the first time we've ever come into bargaining with more nonunion than union" employment, Hickman said. "The climate here is totally different."
Chatilovicz disputed Richardson's contention that the hotels are seeking concessions that would hurt workers. He said there would be no demand for cuts in wages and benefits and that there would be a "reasonable" pay hike.