One Union Dispute Prompts Clinton To Cancel; Another Headed To Court
May 20, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, And STEVEN GOODE, Courant Staff Writers
Brewing labor trouble at a pair of key venues in downtown Hartford took new twists Friday.
Faced with the prospect of crossing a picket line, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton canceled a scheduled appearance tonight at the Civic Center, while an ongoing dispute over union representation prompted city officials in Hartford to file legal papers against the company that runs the downtown Marriott Hotel and the adjacent convention center.
At the Civic Center, workers from more than a dozen Hartford trade unions are threatening to picket a corporate-sponsored dinner tonight to protest what they say are ING Financial Services' unfair business practices in handing out contracts for its new $100 million headquarters facility in Windsor.
In an effort to avert a public showdown, ING withdrew its co-sponsorship of the dinner celebrating the 30th anniversary of Connecticut Association for United Spanish Action, a statewide advocacy group. But, as of late Friday, the unions were still planning to show up in force.
The prospect of crossing a picket line had cast doubt on the appearance of Clinton, a Democrat expected to make a run for the White House in 2008. The association had been saying it was still hopeful the senator would attend, but Clinton press secretary Phillipe Reines late Friday said that wouldn't happen.
"Senator Clinton will not be attending the event," Reines said in an e-mail.
Asked why, Reines responded: "The parties could not come to a resolution."
In a press release Friday, CAUSA officials, who had moved the event from the convention center because of sensitivity to labor issues, expressed their anger at the unions' unwillingness to back off.
The Greater Hartford-New Britain Building and Construction Trades Council demanded last week that ING withdraw. CAUSA said Friday that after ING withdrew its involvement and financial support earlier this week, the unions reneged on an agreement to call off the protest.
Carmen Sierra, executive director of CAUSA, said in the release, "This action by [trade council President] Charles LeConche is outrageous. We agreed to his initial demands, but it is clear now that he was interested in only creating a media event for himself. Mr. LeConche has caused immeasurable damage to the building trade union which has had to struggle to get blacks and Latinos in their ranks."
Sierra added, "His actions are a personal affront to the Latino political leadership of this state, starting with the Mayor of Hartford, Eddie A. Perez, who tried to reason with him. It is clear his actions violate the ideals of what unions are about and are offensive to all the working men and women served by the 16 agencies throughout the state that CAUSA represents. This renegade action by Mr. LeConche to gratuitously cause damage to the Latino community will not be forgotten. This was a non-issue, ING had withdrawn."
Juan Figueroa, a former state representative and civil rights leader, called LeConche's demands "unconscionable when you think of the effect this has on CAUSA."
"There's no explanation to justify it. It's hard to comprehend," Figueroa said.
LeConche said Friday that the promise to picket has nothing to do with CAUSA, specifically.
"It just happened to be their event. This is about corporations getting a free ride on the back of labor and it isn't going to be that way anymore," he said, adding that the trades council plans to be present at any event sponsored by ING or other companies he considers unfriendly toward labor.
The dispute between ING and the local building trades revolves around the number, and value, of contracts recently handed out to build the company's new headquarters in Windsor. ING points to the fact that the company has awarded five of seven contracts to union contractors to this point.
"We've repeatedly demonstrated our commitment to awarding a vast majority of contracts to unions," said ING spokesman Philip Margolis.
But Joseph Toner, a business agent for the local ironworkers union, said ING led the unions to believe the facility would be built entirely with union labor. The two contracts that went to nonunion companies, union leaders say, are worth more than the contracts union shops have received.
Toner said ING's last-minute decision to withdraw as a sponsor of tonight's event does not put an end to the issue. "Wherever ING is going, we're going," Toner said. `We're putting people on notice that ING is not labor-friendly."
The other labor front heating up in Hartford revolves around a continuing dispute between the city and the company that runs the convention center and adjacent Marriott Hotel over the rules under which workers would be allowed to join unions.
The city has argued that local ordinances require the Waterford Group to enter into a "labor peace" agreement with Unite Here!, a union seeking to organize employees. Officials at Waterford say they are under no such requirement.
The city has served Waterford with a lawsuit asking a state court judge to affirm its interpretation of the ordinances before it takes the more drastic step of revoking a 15-year tax break valued at an estimated $30 million.
"We feel confident now, but with the court affirming this, we'll be able to move swiftly to take away the tax agreement if they don't come into compliance," said Matt Hennessy, chief of staff to Mayor Eddie A. Perez.
Len Wolman, Waterford's head, welcomed the suit.
"There is a dispute on how to interpret this ordinance, and we're happy to have the court review the issue," Wolman said. "We believe that our interpretations are correct, and that the court will agree."
The union contends that federal labor laws don't adequately protect workers who want to organize. Unite Here! wants Waterford to sign a "labor peace" agreement that would set ground rules for an organizing campaign that go beyond the existing laws. Those ground rules would allow the union to proceed with an organizing campaign free of management interference; in return, the union would pledge not to protest, picket, or boycott.
Waterford contends that it needs only to abide by the National Labor Relations Act, and the company is asking federal labor officials to conduct an election in which workers would decide on forming a union. The regional director of the National Labor Relations Board has rejected the request, but Waterford is appealing the decision.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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