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Opinion Backs City In Dispute

Says Marriott Is Subject To Ordinance

April 18, 2006
By OSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff Writer

A labor dispute at Hartford's new Marriott Hotel got extra fuel Monday as state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal released a legal opinion that bolstered the position of local unions and city officials.

Blumenthal's opinion said that the new hotel at Adriaen's Landing, which receives city funding, is subject to the city's living-wage ordinance. And although Blumenthal's opinion did not make mention of unions, it does make it easier for workers at the hotel, operated by the Waterford Group, to organize.

"The attorney general has just reinforced what the mayor has been saying all along," said Matt Hennessy, chief of staff to Mayor Eddie A. Perez. "That the state does not intend for the Marriott to be exempted from the city's living-wage ordinance."

By saying that the local ordinance - which sets minimum hourly wages as well as basic rules for organized labor - applies to the hotel, Blumenthal has essentially ruled that the ordinance's labor rules apply. Wages are not at issue here, everyone agrees. But the labor rules are. And according to those rules, if a union attempts to organize workers, management must pledge in writing not to interfere.

Until now, Waterford management has pledged not to interfere but has declined to sign a so-called "labor peace agreement, which is mandated under the ordinance to reinforce that pledge. Len Wolman, chairman and chief executive officer of Waterford, said that the union has plenty of cover under existing federal law to organize workers.

As a result, Waterford and the city have been locked in disagreement.

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 the city ordinance that guarantees labor peace.

The city has gone so far as to threaten the withdrawal of its tax breaks if Waterford does not comply by the end of April, Hennessy said.

The attorney general's opinion Monday only strengthened the city's hand.

The opinion said that Waterford, in accordance with state law, was exempt from local laws during the design and construction phase of the hotel. The exemption stemmed from the 1998 General Assembly legislation that authorized Adriaen's Landing and aimed to move the project along quickly by streamlining the construction process.

Now that the construction is complete, Blumenthal said, the hotel is no longer exempt from local laws.

"The overall bill for Adriaen's Landing was to move the process forward quickly with few administrative glitches," said state Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, who with another legislator asked for the attorney general's opinion

"It was not the intention once construction was done to simply nullify local ordinances."

Wolman said Monday that Blumenthal's opinion was not valid because it failed to address whether local law can govern, specifically, the daily operations of a hotel. Wolman offered Blumenthal's press release as evidence: "The opinion expresses no view - since none was asked - as to whether or how the ordinance applies to hotel operations."

Union officials cheered the opinion as a victory and called on leaders of the Waterford Group to sit down and talk.

Unite Here!, a union working to organize 220 employees at the Marriott and 140 part-time workers at the state-run convention center, said that it will proceed with plans for a Saturday rally outside the hotel and convention center next door.

"We will call on the Wolmans," said Antony Dugdale of Unite Here!, "to not spark a labor conflict."

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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