A Good Day For Hotel Workers

UNITE HERE, the union of U.S. and Canadian hotel workers, and the Hyatt chain announced a wide-reaching agreement on Monday afternoon that will give Hyatt employees in currently non-union hotels across the nation the right to choose a union without having to face management opposition. In return, UNITE HERE announced it is lifting its global boycott of Hyatt hotels.

The agreement will go into effect when new union contracts for current members are ratified by UNITE HERE locals in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Honolulu. The terms of those contracts were also agreed to in today’s settlement.

Over the past quarter-century, UNITE HERE has significantly raised living standards for its members in cities where most major hotels have union contracts. In New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas, hotel workers make more than $20-an-hour with employer-provided health benefit plans that have won national acclaim. The union is also known for its innovative contracts: In Las Vegas, the hotels fund and hire from a “Culinary Academy” that trains and certifies graduates for jobs ranging from fry cook to sommelier. In Los Angeles, since the 1990s, the hotels ensure that any employees deported by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement can regain their jobs if they return within two years.

The union has few if any hotels under contract in most Sunbelt cities, however, and only a partial presence in most Midwestern and West Coast cities. In cities with no union presence, most hotel workers make barely more than the minimum wage.  During the tenure of its former president, John Wilhelm, who stepped down earlier this year, UNITE HERE began to seek nationwide agreements with the major hotel chains that would enable workers to unionize. The battle with Hyatt has been one of its most prolonged and bitter, but today’s announcement clearly signals a breakthrough.

UNITE HERE seldom reveals much about its agreements, and today’s is no exception. D Taylor, who became UNITE HERE’s president this year after serving as head of its casino unit and Las Vegas local, would say little more than that the agreement establishes “a fair process that both we and the employer are comfortable with. A number of hotels are subject to this process.” What exactly that number is remains a mystery. Doug Patrick, Hyatt’s senior vice-president for human resources for its U.S. properties, says the accord applies both to hotels that Hyatt owns and operates and hotels that it merely operates. How many such hotels in how many markets is something that “we’re still in the process of working out,” Patrick says. It’s unlikely that UNITE HERE would have agreed to the accord, however, if the number of covered hotels weren’t substantial.

The union is also reticent about exactly what processes workers may employ to win union recognition. One union official said that the process would be similar to one used at the Long Beach Hyatt when workers recently chose to affiliate with the UNITE HERE local there. According to a Los Angeles union official, “it wasn’t a pure card check process,” in which the employer agrees to recognize the union once a majority of workers have signed affiliation cards. “But,” he adds, “it was like card check. There was a neutrality agreement from the hotel, and a time limit placed on the signature-gathering.”

The agreement also brings an end to one of the Obama Administration’s back-burner problems: The rift between the labor movement and the administration’s new commerce secretary, Penny Pritzker, whose family owns the Hyatt chain. Pritzker’s nomination was confirmed last week by the Senate in a 97-to-1 vote, but the statement of that one naysayer, Bernie Sanders, the indispensable socialist from Vermont, in opposition to her confirmation was one that many in labor shared. “We need a secretary of commerce who will represent the interests of working Americans and their families, not simply the interests of C.E.O.’s and large corporations,” Sanders said. “Workers at Hyatt have been unjustly fired for trying to form a union to collectively bargain for better wages and benefits. Unfortunately, Ms. Pritzker chose not to defend those employees.”

With today’s agreement, progressives can refocus their criticisms of Pritzker on her family’s use of offshore tax shelters. 

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