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Labor Peace May Be Unraveling

Union Tension Arises At Adriaen's Landing

January 8, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

The labor peace that marked much of the Adriaen's Landing project in Hartford has hit what could become a major snag: Two unions, a hotel owner and the city are at odds over the thorny issue of union representation.

The prospect of escalating labor tension around the Connecticut Convention Center and the adjacent Marriott Hotel has city officials worried that Hartford's new showpiece could become the target of a major labor effort in its first year of operation.

Although the union is saying little about its long-term plans, it has already contacted some convention center clients to alert them to its position and the potential for unrest.

"This is the most critical time for the convention center and the hotel, making sure that people have a good experience and you have enough business," Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez said. "So, yes, it raises a lot of concerns for me and the folks on the city council.

"The plan was that we would have a fully functioning convention center - and labor unrest was not part of the equation."

It is a fight six years in the making, with roots in the failed efforts of the hotel workers' unions to convince state lawmakers to include them in the legislation that created Adriaen's Landing. As it did then, the union is now pressing for measures that would make it easier for workers to organize.

But while the legislation took care of the construction trades, it did not cover janitors and part-time banquet workers at the convention center and housekeepers, janitors and clerks at the hotel.

Now, as Adriaen's Landing moves from construction to operation, the union is bringing the debate back.

"The legislature established labor-peace guidelines for the construction phase but not for the operation phase, and the operation phase is up for grabs," said Antony Dugdale, an official with Unite Here!, which is working to organize 220 workers at the hotel and 140 part-time workers at the convention center.

Another union, the Service Employees International Union, is seeking to represent janitors at the convention center, which has 60 full-time employees.

The dispute returned last summer as the union sought to meet with Waterford Hotel Group Inc. to discuss an organizing effort. Waterford's parent company has overseen construction of the convention center and hotel, and now operates both.

In a letter from its Washington, D.C., attorney, the company declined to meet with the union, saying there were no provisions for neutrality - rules that aim to ensure "labor peace" - in the original Adriaen's Landing agreement. The attorney added that fair and free union elections are allowed under federal labor law.

The matter has since unfolded on several fronts.

First, the city and Waterford are locked in a disagreement over local ordinances that govern labor organizing rules on city-funded projects. Because the Waterford group received an $8 million loan and tax breaks worth between $15 million and $25 million over 15 years, city officials say Waterford must adhere to a city ordinance that guarantees labor peace.

The ordinance effectively says that, as a union works to organize its workers, management agrees to not interfere in the process and the union agrees not to strike.

"[Waterford] has done well in Hartford, they've done good business in Hartford, they've benefited from the city's partnership, and the city has benefited from the partnership with them," said Matt Hennessy, the mayor's chief of staff. "But the ordinance is the ordinance and the law is the law, and it's hard to say that we can't uphold the law because there's a good relationship."

He added that if Waterford wanted to return the $8 million and drop the tax agreement, the legal issue would go away.

"This is all in their hands," Hennessy said. "They don't have to do any of this, but they also don't have to take all of this public money."

Officials at Waterford disagree.

"We believe [the ordinance] does apply during the development process," said Len Wolman, chairman and chief executive officer of the Waterford Group. "It is our firm position that it doesn't apply to the operations of the Marriott."

Wolman, whose company owns the Hartford Hilton - which has some union labor and which built the convention center hotel with union labor - bristled at suggestions that his company is anti-union.

"Have we not honored any agreement or have we done anything that isn't in everyone's best interests?" Wolman asked. "At the end of the day, our most important assets are our associates ... and we want to make sure that they're happy."

Waterford said that if the workers want to organize, they can do so under the provisions established by the National Labor Relations Act, a process union officials say takes too much time and is too prone to abuse.

"If they wanted to choose to organize, that would be their choice. ... It's up to them how they want to do it, and we would follow the process that would be set out and respect it," Wolman said. "We don't know of any employees that have asked to unionize. And we don't know who they would ask to unionize with if they even asked to unionize."

Everyone is still at the table talking about the issue, but they have not reached a resolution, officials said.

The union has told the state Democratic Party - which the union knows will not cross a picket line - that there could be unrest if no labor peace agreement is in place by the party's scheduled convention at the center in May.

That could leave Democrats in the odd position of staying away from a facility built with millions of dollars approved by a legislature with a Democratic majority.

"We've been told that there's a possibility that there will be a picket line, and we can't cross a picket line," said Leslie O'Brien, executive director of the Connecticut Democrats. "That's it. Period."

The union has begun to contact other organizations that are considering events in Hartford to make them aware of its position, officials said.

Other than the Democrats, no one has contacted the state's Capital City Economic Development Authority to talk about backing out, officials said.

"We're concerned [that] this hotel and convention center [could] become the subject of a national labor organizing effort because they're very high profile in a capital city in a community that is pro-labor," Hennessy said. "Already, organizations that have events planned at this facility have been contacted by representatives of the unions to talk about the status of the facility."

Michael Cicchetti, assistant director of the state's Capital City Economic Development Authority, who met with the state Democrats to try to ease their concerns, echoed Wolman's position on the issue.

"The convention center certainly has done nothing that would violate federal or state labor laws," Cicchetti said, adding that the state and its partners should not be in the business of signing agreements with unions that don't have the support of their workers.

"We cannot give away the rights of our employees," he said. "They may choose to unionize, but they may not want to unionize with Unite Here!

"The national labor relations statutes set out a fair and [objective] process for this," he said.

But that process isn't good enough, Dugdale said, noting that the workers have yet to decide what their next step will be.

"The [national labor laws] allow employers to engage in intimidating behavior and [have] very few enforcement provisions for when employers break the law," said Dugdale, who noted that his union and Waterford have a productive relationship at the Hilton. "It also allows unions to engage in strikes and picketing and boycotts."

"We don't think that's the best direction to go in," Dugdale said. "It's not the best for Hartford and it's not the best for the Waterford group and it's not the best for the workers."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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