June 8, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
After the operator of the Connecticut Convention Center and adjacent Marriott Hotel effectively declined his private invitation to mediate an ongoing labor dispute, Hartford Mayor Eddie A. Perez decided to invite him again.
In a press release.
Matt Hennessy, the mayor's chief of staff, said Wednesday's late afternoon public invitation was, in part, an attempt "to encourage everyone to get to the table, including those who may be deciding whether or not to."
But Hennessy also said the mayor - who has threatened to take back a $30 million tax deal from the hotel if Len Wolman of the Waterford Group doesn't come to terms with the union - now wants to play the role of peacemaker.
And he wants people to know it.
"The public is completely unaware that there's an effort to try and bring folks to the table," Hennessy said. "There's an opportunity to sit down and have face-to-face conversations, and we hope that all parties will take advantage of this opportunity."
On Tuesday, Perez sent out his second private invitation in five days to representatives from two labor unions, the state and the Waterford Group, asking them to come to meetings to be mediated by former state labor Commissioner Shaun B. Cashman.
Wolman had already declined the first invitation, telling the mayor he would be happy to discuss labor relations at the hotel, but not until he had assurances a union boycott - which began in May - would be withdrawn, among other conditions.
The union since had agreed to suspend picketing and other activities for a week, but Wolman, in a response to Perez's second invitation, sent a letter Wednesday morning saying he still didn't have the assurances he was looking for.
Later in the day, Wolman declined to comment on the invitation via press release, but did say the current state of affairs is troubling.
"Sure it bothers me," Wolman said. "We worked very hard to get to this point. ... It's really disappointing to see what's going on."
Representatives from both state organizations of Unite Here! and the Service Employees International Union have agreed to attend the mayor's meetings next Thursday, as have representatives from the state Capital City Economic Development Authority.
The labor issue is not so much about wages or working conditions, but about process: How will workers decide whether to unionize?
Unite Here! believes federal labor laws are insufficient and don't adequately protect workers' rights and is pushing for a "labor peace" agreement. The union argues such an agreement would ensure greater protection for workers during an organizing campaign, in exchange for a promise from the union that it would not picket, boycott or protest.
Wolman and his company have argued federal labor laws that outline the process for an election are the fairest way for employees to decide whether they should unionize. Wolman has asked for a union election, said his company would not interfere in the process and pledged he would respect the decision of the employees.
The Waterford Group owns and operates the Marriott and runs the state-owned convention center. In May, Unite Here! called for a boycott of both facilities. As a result, the United Church of Christ canceled its 2007 national convention at the center, moving it to the decades-old Hartford Civic Center, instead.
Since The Waterford Group owns the hotel, the decision on whether to attend a meeting is Wolman's own; but since the state owns the convention center, Wolman's presence may be requested by the state.
"They haven't asked us," Wolman said of the state. "In the past, there have been meetings with the union, and we have had people from our organization attend."
Hennessy said he was optimistic all relevant parties would come together next Thursday.
"A lot of things can happen between now and the 15th," Hennessy said. "We hope the parties can take advantage of it."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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