Unite Here shies from NLRB, but privately urges boycott
May 22, 2006
By DIANE WEAVER DUNNE, Hartford Business Journal Writer
Convention organizers are threatening to pull their business from the Marriott Downtown Hartford hotel and the Connecticut Convention Center because of a controversial union protest at the two facilities.
In recent weeks, the Waterford Group and the Capital City Economic Development Authority — which oversee the hotel and convention center, respectively — have received letters from at least eight organizations expressing their unwillingness to bring thousands of potential convention-goers to the city while a union continues to battle the Waterford Group.
Groups such as the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, the American Psychological Association and the Hartford Region YWCA have all said they are unlikely to sign contracts with either the hotel or the convention center amidst the current labor situation.
The Connecticut Housing Coalition, which hosted a 700-attendee event last year at the convention center, wrote that “we very much want to return again, and have a proposed contract awaiting execution for October 31, 2006. However, our ability to bring this annual event back to the Connecticut Convention Center and the Marriott Hartford Downtown is now jeopardized by the prospect of the labor dispute.”
In addition, the Christian Activities Council is advising its 14,000 members to boycott the Marriott Downtown Hartford and the convention center until a labor peace agreement has been reached between union representatives and the Waterford Group, the owner of the hotel and manager of the convention center’s workers.
Antony Dugdale, a research analyst for the Connecticut chapter of hotel industry union Unite Here, said his union is warning organizations about potential picket lines and labor unrest at the convention center.
“We want to make sure that customers understand that there is a boycott at this facility, and we are communicating that as broadly as possible,” Dugdale explained.
The most serious potential pinch to the convention center’s bottom line comes from the United Church of Christ. The Christian organization is threatening to cancel its contract with the state for an international convention next June. That could result in an economic loss generated from 7,000 to 10,000 convention-goers no longer coming to Hartford and the region.
The church group is also threatening to go elsewhere in the fall for a smaller conference that could draw 750 people.
“We will not cross picket lines and we will not bring our business to a facility where social justice is an issue,” said James Morgan, spokesperson for the Connecticut Conference of United Church of Christ.
That is despite Waterford Group’s call, under rules set by the National Labor Relations Board, for a federally supervised secret ballot vote of its 200 hotel workers to determine whether they want union representation.
Morgan explained that his organization would like to see Waterford Group allow Unite Here to organize workers in the manner in which the union chooses.
CCEDA, the state agency that funded the one-year-old, $267 million Connecticut Convention Center, has not received any complaints from employees about their working conditions or compensation, said spokesman Michael Cicchetti.
The union conflict brings a negative cloud over the city’s revitalization efforts, he said. “The negativity is not whether the workers want to organize. That’s their right. We’ll accept it and move on. It is this destructive behavior of this one union [Unite Here],” Cicchetti maintained.
Hartford is just starting to put itself on the map on a national level as a legitimate convention center site, he added. “As we are establishing Hartford in that light, the unions are coming along and purposefully trying to tear that down. If the convention center is not successful, that helps no one,” he said.
Waterford Group has called for a secret ballot vote to be supervised by the NLRB – a move that the board disallowed because Unite Here told the oversight board that it is not currently interested in representing the workers.
Len Wolman, president and CEO of Waterford Group, maintains that the NLRB-endorsed secret ballot vote is the fairest way to resolve the dispute. Richard Hurd, professor of labor studies at Cornell University, said NLRB elections are not worth the investment to union organizers. “They look for other ways to increase their size, by utilizing a combination of external pressures — such as a consumer boycott — and an alternative selection process to the National Labor Board election to determine whether the union has majority support,” he explained.
Although some unions prefer alternate methods, of the 2,267 NLRB elections conducted during the last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, 2005, unions won 1,371 elections, or 60.4 percent, said Patricia Gilbert, spokeswoman for the NLRB. Most of those elections were conducted within two months of the filing of a petition to organize, she added.
Unite Here’s Dugdale said his organization launched a boycott of the convention center as way to communicate Waterford’s non-compliance with the Hartford’s living wage ordinance, which requires a labor peace agreement be reached by developers receiving financial incentives from the city.
“Labor peace agreements are the hotel industry standards,” he said. ”This is how [management and unions] agree to have this process go forward. We agree with the industry standard and we want Waterford to do what is mandated by law.”
Hartford officials are backing Unite Here and maintain that Waterford Group risks losing a long-term tax break valued between $15 million and $20 million.
Said Michael Cicchetti: “From CCEDA’s perspective, we have two main concerns. Number one, that everyone involved is following the law, and number two, that the employees of the convention center have the ability to choose their own destiny. It is important to choose whether or not they want to organize and which union they want to organize with. It seems to us the fairest way to settle this is a democratic election, an anonymous, secret ballot.”