Hotel union scurrying to organize workers. New York strike focuses on issues involved in big-city surge of new rooms

Does your bellhop bear the union label? Very likely not nowadays, even in a traditionally strong union city like Boston.

The hotel industry has been doing fairly well lately -- but the hotel unions less so. New hotels have been going up faster than the Hotel, Restaurant, Institutional Employees & Bartenders Union of the AFL-CIO can organize them.

Boston, which has absorbed a large number of new rooms in just the last few years, is a good example. Hotels covered by agreements with Local 26 of the hotel workers' union make up roughly half the hotel rooms in town.

But Domenic M. Bozzotto, president of Local 26, identifies 12 new hotels in the Boston-Cambridge area as nonunion -- and hence ripe for organizing.

The current strike in New York, the first in 46 years, has focused attention on the hotel unions. Moreover, says Mr. Bozzotto, the New York strike ``means there absolutely will be a strike in Boston'' when the current contract expires Dec. 1. ``No doubt about it,'' he adds. ``We've been preparing for it for three years -- building alliances.''

The union's international is launching a major organizing effort, trying to shore up its strength in four cities where it is already relatively strong: Washington, San Diego, and Chicago, as well as Boston. Ten full-time organizers from the international will be hitting the pavements in Boston today as part of the campaign.

But the state of unions in the hotel industry is much the same as those in other established industries: eroding.

``Trade unionism is having a rough time,'' observes Francine Herman, associate professor at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and a longtime observer of hotel unions. ``Strikes are the most visible means of bringing themselves to the attention of the public. . . . The first strike after [all these] years jars people into awareness of the unions. . . .'' But she concedes the union may have some tough going.

By the end of last week, the New York strike had slipped from the news pages of the New York Times to the Style section, with reports on what banquets were being moved where. ``The strike just won't be that dramatic unless it lasts a long time,'' says Mark Lomanno, associate director for research and development in the leisure-time industry at Laventhol & Horwath, a consulting and accounting firm that follows the lodging industry.

In New York City, where even the Marriott Corporation's Essex House is a union operation, the master agreement has ``on the whole been satisfactory for management,'' says Dr. Herman. If all hotels pay the same, management at one hotel needn't worry that the hotel up the street will woo away its skilled bellhops or housekeepers. ``The nonskilled workers tend to drift away anyway.''

One of the issues in New York has been management's proposal for a ``two tier'' wage structure, like that some of the airlines have established with their employees. In a two-tier system, new hires come in at lower wage rates, but established employees remain on a higher scale. Bozzotto says he expects to see a two-tier system proposed in Boston, too.

``I don't see how they can work on a two-tier basis -- it must be unbearable in a labor-intensive situation,'' says Dr. Herman. She identifies management's proposal of a two-tier wage system, along with a desire for a dollar cap, rather than a percentage cap, on wages as ``major strike issues.''

Another union complaint is with the way hotels are owned nowadays.

``Bookkeepers!'' Bozzotto bellows. ``All they think of is the bottom line.'' What he's referring to is the tendency for ownership of a hotel to be separated from the management of the hotels. More and more, hotels are owned by insurance companies, banks, and limited partnerships. The big names -- Marriott or Westin, for example -- are the names of management companies.

Bozzotto decries ``factory hotels,'' and he longs for the days when ``visiting a hotel was like visiting someone's home.''

``These `bookkeepers,' '' he says, referring to the insurance companies and other new owners of hotels, ``think, `If we cut back on a busboy, we can have the waiter do the busboy's work.' But then the waiter isn't going back to the customer to suggest a second drink, or an appetizer or a dessert. The `bookkeeper' thinks, `We're saving money,' but they should be thinking of trying to increase the average check in the dining room.''

Robert T. Souers, director of corporate relations for Marriott Corporation, counters, ``Our philosophy and strategy is not to own bricks and mortar, but rather to have long-term management contracts -- 99 years -- and that allows us to do best what we do, which is manage hotels. Whether a hotel is owned by a bank or whomever, the way a hotel is operated is dictated by us.''

The Marriott chain has been able to grow the way it has because the company has not had all its money tied up in real estate. ``We leverage our management expertise instead.''

Bozzotto, son of an Italian immigrant who had started as a dishwasher and retired as a chef, complains, ``There's no mechanism for upward mobility. . . . There used to be all kinds of ladders.'' He accuses the hotel industry of exploiting the high turnover among low-skilled employees to hold wages down, instead of trying to cultivate them as long-term employees.

``People see maids in hotels all the time. If they [the maids] don't speak English, they just duck in the halls and hide from the guests. But if they're taught enough English to be able to recommend a good place to eat, or even to say, `You can ask Jim the doorman about where's a good place to eat,' the maids can be part of your marketing effort. The cost of an ESL [English as a second language] program is very small, compared to what you get from it.''

Marriott's Mr. Souers counters, ``Some 30 to 35 percent of our managers come up from the hourly ranks. We need a lot of managers, because we're growing fast.''

Mr. Lomanno, at Laventhol, suggests that separating ownership from management of a hotel doesn't matter to the quality of the operation.

``But it makes it harder for the union. The management company can say, `You have to talk with the owners,' and the owners can say, `You have to talk with the management company.' It just makes it harder bureaucratically.''

The Marriott Hotels, except in New York City, are all nonunion. But wages and benefits at the Marriotts, when compared ``by location,'' says Souers, ``will match or exceed the prevailing union scale.''

Mr. Souers points out that in a service-intensive business, particularly, ``the work force must be happy and well motivated to keep the customers coming back.''

The corporation has ``tried to be very close to its employees'' and sees its communications as ``better than having a third party involved.

Organizing has not been cost effective for hotel unions except in large cities, Dr. Herman notes, and many areas just don't have much of a union tradition. Indeed, the strong-union areas have been pretty much the Northeast, plus Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The hotel industry work force has also been largely female. ``Women have traditionally been hard to organize, partly because they don't think of themselves as in the work force,'' says Dr. Herman. ``Women have been less attracted to unionism because they see it as `unladylike' or `unfeminine.' And the old AFL-CIO was not receptive to women -- but that's changed.''

``In our nonunion properties, we absolutely meet or exceed the prevailing market rate for qualified people,'' says Thomas I. Moore, director of human resource systems at Westin Hotels in Seattle.

The Westin hotels are ``a mixed bag, roughly 50-50'' on the union-nonunion issue, he notes. He stresses how hard it can be to find qualified people, particularly in the culinary area. This lag, he notes, is a legacy of the lack in this country of an apprentice system for the food-service industry.

Still there is a labor cost savings in a nonunion situation, ``in the areas of scheduling, shifts, hours, and so on,'' he says.

Mr. Bozzotto says that without union work rules guaranteeing eight-hour days doing a single job, workers don't develop any one skill sufficiently to become experts.

But Mr. Moore says that only in ``Utopia'' would a room attendant, for example, spend an eight-hour day doing just that job. If there isn't enough work, the hotel would like to shift that person to do something else -- housekeeping work in a public area, for example. This kind of shift would be basically within one area, however.

Another issue the union has pushed is affirmative action: The top-line hotel jobs have been the province of white males, while black and Hispanic women have labored behind the scenes. But Westin's Moore says his company is addressing this issue, too. Affirmative-action performance is one of the criteria by which Westin managers are evaluated -- and paid.

``If we've got a manager who's got a lot of women in the white shoes waitressing in the coffee shop and ask him what he's doing for affirmative action, and he tells us he's taken five of these waitresses and put them in tuxedos and got them waiting tables in the main dining room, that's something that will be given consideration at his [evaluation for an] increase.''

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