Unite Here! Rallies City Council Support for Sheraton Boycott — by Ron Kipling Williams

Unite Here! Rallies City Council Support for Sheraton Boycott — by Ron Kipling Williams

“I feel like they’re trying to run me ,” said Harrison. “I’m not running.”

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One of the largest labor unions in Maryland has been embroiled in a two-year dispute with one of Baltimore City’s prominent downtown hotels.

Unite Here! gathered inside Baltimore City Council chambers on Wednesday, February 4th. They petitioned the labor subcommittee to pass a resolution supporting their continued boycott of the Sheraton Baltimore City Center hotel.

The Sheraton – which has a 30-year union history – has been owned since October 2005 by Columbia Sussex, a $2 billion company with about 22,000 employees. Over the years, they have garnered a reputation for shoddy and unscrupulous labor practices.

In 2007, the company – led by William Young– took over the Tropicana casino in Atlantic City, NJ, and immediately began engaging in cost cutting measures including the layoffs of 900 employees that angered union leaders and elected officials.

This resulted in many health code violations, including an infestation of bed bugs, which sent four employees to the hospital for treatment.

The New Jersey Casino Control Commission declared Young unfit to operate a casino, and ordered him to forfeit his license, subsequently transferring ownership of the other 10 casino hotels the company owned.

“Now they want to run decent wages, viable health packages, and block the conversion of 401k’s into a defined benefit plan,” said Joe Shanahan, business manager of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 37. “We’ve got to do something to turn this thing around.”

“When Columbia Sussex first came in they said things wouldn’t change – it did,” said Lauri Joe, a 16-year employee of the hotel.

Darlene Harrison spoke of the bond that management and workers had before Columbia Sussex took over. Now the climate has drastically changed. “I feel like they’re trying to run me ,” said Harrison. “I’m not running.”

The company began having dual meetings – one in English and one in Spanish – with complaints of intimidation by Hispanic workers and foreign exchange students.

Other abuses have mounted such as extra workloads without compensation, lack of necessary cleaning supplies and toiletries, and a decrease in the percentage of gratuities workers receive.

“The only way to affect business that discriminates is to hit them in their wallet,” said NAACP Chapter President Marvin “Doc” Cheatham. “We need the council to vote to make this public. Once it’s public, there will be pressure financially on that hotel.”

As a union organizer, Cheatham had been bringing conferences to the hotel. When he saw the deteriorating conditions for workers under Columbia Sussex, he decided to pull out of a planned October 2008 conference and moved it to Martin’s West.

Currently there are only two hotels in Baltimore that are unionized: The New Hilton Hotel on Pratt Street and the Sheraton.

Towards the end of the hearing, chair Robert Curran called the subcommittee to a vote. Members – Ed Reisinger, Bernard “Jack” Young, and Curran – all voted to support the boycott. The resolution will go to the full City Council for a vote on Monday, February 23rd, when Columbia Sussex will have an opportunity to make their case.