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D.C. hotel workers make contract gains

By Derek Tyner | Janury 21, 2005 | Page 15

WASHINGTON--On January 14, after working almost four months without a contract, members of the UNITE HERE Local 25 won a decisive victory when the Hotel Association of Washington agreed to most of the union's demands.

After months of stalled negotiations, the local moved the process into high gear by giving the Hotel Association until January 15 to sign the contract--or risk a strike of 3,500 workers in 14 hotels during inauguration week. With only days to go, management was suddenly confronted with the likely possibility of GOP high-rollers carrying their own luggage, making their own beds and cleaning their own bathrooms.

This wake-up call came in the form of weeklong, around-the-clock picketing, with Local 25 members and their supporters chanting and marching in front of the Association's luxury properties. One day before the deadline, the union was joined on its pickets by local members of SEIU, OPEIU, the National Education Association as well as AFL-CIO staffers.

As the deadline neared, the local's resolve to resist concessions hardened. "They want to treat us like it's the '30s," Gamimi Perere, an employee at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel told Socialist Worker, as the largely minority and immigrant crowd of workers chanted, "They say co-pay, we say no way!" while carrying handmade signs in Spanish, English, Chinese and Amharic (Ethiopian language).

In the course of a six-hour negotiation on January 14, the Hotel Association steadily agreed to guaranteed eight-hour shifts, improved grievance procedures, greater workplace access for union representatives, 50-cent-a-year raises with payment retroactive to September and an improved pension plan. At the same time, the Hotel Association dropped its demands for drug-testing, job combinations and a second-tier health care for new hires.

UNITE HERE, however, backed down on one major demand--a two-year contract that would have expired simultaneously with those in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Instead, the local agreed to a three-year contract.

By settling before the inauguration, the union gave up the opportunity to use leverage to gain the common contract expiration, which would have helped nationalize bargaining.

In fact, UNITE HERE's San Francisco contract battle has lost momentum following a back-to-work agreement that ended a lockout by employers. While the struggle was difficult, the return to work without an agreement allowed hotel employers to continue to operate during the profitable holiday season.

UNITE HERE is also fighting for a contract at 14 Los Angeles hotels, which have also taken a hard line against a common contract expiration.

At a time when the labor movement finds itself on the defensive, the hotel workers' victory shows that good contracts can still be won the old-fashioned way: by mustering the will to strike, and by laying the groundwork to carry out the threat.

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