UNION BOYCOTT OF DOWNTOWN HOTEL CONTINUES

UNION BOYCOTT OF DOWNTOWN HOTEL CONTINUES

Two years since the expiration of the Sheraton Baltimore City Center workers union contract, the campaign to keep the hotel unionized received a significant boost with a Community Forum on Wednesday, April 30th, 2008 organized by UNITE HERE (formerly the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees combined with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union). The forum was meant to update the community on the boycott of the hotel that has been in effect since October of last year and to ask for continued support from businesses and individuals in the struggle to preserve the last unionized and second-largest hotel in Baltimore. The event was attended by about 150 people, including senior reps from a number of unions, state, and national organizations. Baltimore City Council members Bill Henry and William H. Cole also attended and reiterated their support for the boycott. Workers called the boycott shortly after Columbia Sussex, a national hospitality corporation, bought the hotel. Columbia Sussex owns 85 hotels in the nation, five of which are still unionized. Union hotels include the Sheraton in Baltimore, the Crystal City Hilton in Virginia, and hotels in Philadelphia, Sacramento and Anchorage. All five are fighting to keep their unions in the face of budget cuts, intimidation, and demands to disband from Columbia-Sussex. UNITE HERE recently made the Crystal City Hilton and Sheraton Baltimore City Center part of one unified campaign. Both hotels have become victims of Columbia-Sussex's strategy of buying out hotels cheap, then cutting costs to yield a substantial profit. The Tropicana Casino & Resort in Atlantic City, NJ lost its state license to operate after an investigation last year found that Columbia-Sussex's $40 million in pay-roll cuts resulted in bedbugs, roaches, poor quality food, and other unsanitary conditions. Workers at the two area hotels report similar conditions and worry that health and safety issues will soon be noticed by licensing authorities. “All we want is respect, a decent pay, and a pension plan,” explained Kitty Kat, a single mother and housekeeper at the hotel for 18 years. Kitty points out that the housekeeping staff has been reduced from 75 to 45, and that the budget has been cut to the point that workers have to scramble to find clean linen, sometimes having to purchase it themselves. Laundry staff has been cut from nine to three workers, and other departments are experiencing similar shortages. The workers told the audience about absolute disrespect from management: “If they could, they would pay us in cotton, if at all,” said Carl Taylor. Several major events planned to take place at the hotel have been canceled or moved, resulting in an estimated $3 million in losses. Conventions by several unions, the United Way, Sisters Together And Reaching, and a meeting of the Democratic National Committee last fall were all moved. The DNC meeting would have brought 1,500 attendees and many super-delegates to Baltimore, and its very public decision to move to Virginia (apparently disappointing to Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon) undoubtedly had a significant impact on Columbia-Sussex's revenue. Organizers also announced that three local hotels are working to create new unions and that the Hilton Baltimore Convention Center hotel under construction will be subject to a neutrality agreement to allow workers to unionize there. Workers and organizers seemed optimistic, referring to the community forum as a major step in the struggle to raise awareness - not only about the two hotels in this campaign, but also the continuing abuse of workers in the growing service industry as a whole. As one hotel worker, Laurie, said: “They’re gonna start pokin' us in the eye, so we are gonna start pokin' them in their eyes”. If the continuing pressure from labor and community groups does not bring about a change in Columbia-Sussex's practices, UNITE HERE and its supporters are prepared to escalate the campaign.