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Democrats Seek Change Of Venue

Labor Unrest Affects Convention Plans

March 31, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

As a simmering labor dispute at the state's new convention center heated up Thursday, Democratic Party officials, who have vowed not to cross a picket line, prepared to cross town instead.

Instead of holding their state convention at Hartford's new jewel, Democrats are close to finalizing a deal to hold the May 20 event at the University of Hartford, where there will be neither a union dispute nor - because the school's commencement is the next day and there's little time for cleaning up - the party paraphernalia that give politics a bit more theater.

"They're not going to be able to use balloons and confetti," said John J. Carson, a university spokesman.

Unite Here!, a union working to organize 140 part-time workers at the convention center and 220 employees at the Marriott next door, Thursday declared April 22 as the date on which it will begin "labor unrest" - frequent rallies, demonstrations, picket lines and a call for a boycott. The union also began circulating a petition signed by statewide Democratic office holders pledging that they will boycott both the center and the hotel if the dispute is not resolved.

Among those planning to stay away from the Hartford facility is Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez.

At the heart of the conflict is a union demand that the Waterford Group, which runs the two facilities, accept measures that would make it easier for workers to organize. The union wants the employer to refrain from any anti-union campaigning.

"It's like an armistice," said Unite Here! official Antony Dugdale. "We agree the workers will be able to make their decision without a fight, and management agrees not to use their management prerogatives to threaten and intimidate the workers."

But Len Wolman, chairman and chief executive officer of the Waterford Group, says his company isn't obligated to such a deal. Furthermore, if workers want to unionize, they can - with no fear of penalty, Wolman said.

"We complied with all of our commitments and obligations. We built the Marriott with 100 percent union labor. We also oversaw the development and construction of the convention center with 100 percent union labor," he said. "We've exceeded all the goals of hiring Hartford residents at each facility."

"Is this the way to develop and grow the city and the state?"

But the state's Democrats see a clear-cut line.

"If there is a labor dispute at the convention center, we will not cross that picket line," said Justin Kronholm, executive director of the Democratic State Central Committee. "We are looking at an alternative Plan B, and that's contingent upon whether there is a labor dispute."

Kronholm would not confirm that Plan B is the University of Hartford, and would not say whether there is a deadline for the party to decide on a venue.

But the university's Carson said decision time is near. "Obviously, we're going to want a deposit here in the very near future," he said. "We've got to schedule overtime for our facilities people and our public safety and, of course, our food service."

Meanwhile, as the threat of a boycott forces the Democrats to look elsewhere for a convention site, it's also forcing the convention center to keep its own business interests in mind.

"We are holding the [May 20] date to the extent that no one else wants it," said Michael Cicchetti, assistant director of the Capital City Economic Development Authority, which owns the facility. "If someone else expresses interest, we would tell [the Democrats] that someone else is interested and they would have to make a decision at that point."

"We don't want to see boycotts - it's disruptive, I'm not sure what it accomplishes," he said. "Let's not air our dirty laundry to the whole country and put Hartford at a disadvantage right at the time when we're starting to move up."

The fight has not only put state lawmakers in a position of refusing to go to a facility they spent $272 million to build, but has soured relations between Waterford and Perez.

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 $8million loan and tax breaks worth between $15million and $30million over 15 years, city officials say Waterford must adhere to a city ordinance that guarantees labor peace.

The city this week sent Waterford a letter saying that it has 30 days to sign a "labor peace" agreement with the union, or risk losing its tax-fixing agreement.

"This has been telegraphed for a long time, and I think Waterford has been given every opportunity to come into compliance, from the city's perspective," said Matt Hennessy, chief of staff to Perez.

Wolman, though, says the city is wrong on the merits. Although the tax-fixing agreement did require Waterford to meet the "labor peace" provisions during the construction phase of the hotel and convention center, he said, it does not apply to the operational phase.

In addition to the potential business loss the convention center and hotel could take, there are larger financial issues at play. Last summer, Waterford announced a $250 million deal to sell two-thirds of its ownership in seven of its Connecticut hotels and a 50 percent ownership in the two Hartford hotels to an outside investor.

When the deal closed in February, though, it was more modest: That investor, Hersha Hospitality Trust, purchased only 15 percent of the Marriott and 10 percent of the Hilton.

Wolman said the threat of labor problems might have affected the Hersha deal. "I would have to say that there was some consideration given to that," he said. "I don't know that that was the only factor."

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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