John A. Boardman, the head of the local hotel union, stood in front of about 80 union members who had gathered at the Prince Hall Masonic Temple on U Street NW yesterday evening.
"We're gonna win this thing," said Boardman, to the cheering of the crowd. If there is a strike -- as Boardman keeps predicting there will be -- those in the audience were the men and women who would be expected to keep those marching on the picket lines from causing trouble.
"The picket line is the most important tool and we have to protect it," said Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 25. "There will be no cursing" or violence, he said, adding that the union will give out cell phones and bullhorns for the strike -- and that union members should not bring weapons to the picket lines.
The union members asked him questions about health insurance, and Boardman replied, "We will take care of everyone. We will not leave anyone behind."
Some took notes as they sat on folding chairs. Others simply nodded. Those interviewed said they were ready to go on strike. "I got my Reeboks warmed up, my arms are strong, and I'm ready to go," said Belinda Tyler, 29, a housekeeper at Loews L'Enfant Plaza.
"Financially, I'm prepared," said Timmy Pearsall, 47, a houseman at Loews L'Enfant Plaza. "By any means necessary, I'm ready and prepared."
If the union, which represents 3,800 D.C. hotel workers, does strike, it will be the first major hotel strike in recent Washington history.
"I think a strike is imminent," said Boardman, although he declined to say when it would start. "We're going to execute when we think it is strategically and tactically advantageous for us," he said.
"The hotels are open and they're operating well," said Lynn Lawson, a spokeswoman for the Hotel Association of Washington. "They are well-prepared for any potential action by the union."
The union's contract with 14 major District hotels expired Wednesday. The two sides have not met since Wednesday afternoon. The hotels on Friday offered to meet for further negotiations as early as Tuesday; Boardman sent a letter to the hotels yesterday indicating the union negotiating team is willing to meet Monday at 10 a.m.
"We're pleased that the union is as interested in returning to the table as we are and we'll continue to work on the schedule," Lawson said.
Local 25 is coordinating the timing of a possible strike with hotel workers in San Francisco and Los Angeles, whose contracts expired earlier in the year.
It is not, however, trying to time its action with those of the Atlantic City workers. On Friday, 17,000 workers in Atlantic City casinos, who are represented by the same national union, Unite Here, agreed to extend contract negotiations until Oct. 1, averting an immediate strike there. Union officials said the issues with the casinos differ from those with the hotel workers in Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The unions and hotels are locked in an impasse mainly over treatment of workers and how long a new contract would last. Local 25 seeks a two-year contract, as opposed to the usual three, so that it will expire in 2006, the same year as in New York, Chicago, and other cities. The union figures that having many major cities' contracts expire at once will give them greater leverage in negotiations with national hotel chains; executives of District hotels argue that a three-year contract would allow the hotels to lock in rapidly rising health care costs for a longer period of time.
The union also argues that workers need greater protection from being overworked and treated poorly and seeks to codify such protections in a new contract, while the hotel argues that those issues are best dealt with hotel-by-hotel and that the protections the union proposes would be so expensive as to make them uncompetitive with non-union hotels.
It was uneventful at many Washington hotels; at the Renaissance Mayflower on Connecticut Avenue, for example, tourists ambled through the opulent lobby. The only outward sign of labor unrest was security guards armed with video cameras posted at each entrance.
Many unionized hotel workers said yesterday they were apprehensive, but ready. "I can make good money here," said Latif Sarker, a 54-year-old bellman at the Marriott Wardman Park. "The benefits are good. I like this place, but I want us to get this solved."