- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2005

In the midst of a ratification vote yesterday, Hiruye Berhanemeskel put his arms around the chief negotiator for the hotel workers’ union and gave him a bear hug.

Mr. Berhanemeskel, a banquet server and Ethiopian native who has worked at the Capital Hilton for 10 years, wasn’t the only person to seek out John Boardman, the union official who helped iron out a popular contract for 3,500 people who work at 14 of the largest hotels in the District.

“I’ve been getting that a lot the past four days,” said Mr. Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 25.

A three-year labor agreement earned overwhelming approval by Unite Here Local 25 with 97 percent of workers voting in favor of the contract. The new deal will keep union members on the job during the lucrative inauguration. It also boosts wages, preserves health care benefits and increases employers’ contribution to worker pensions.

“The union did its job. People like the contract,” Mr. Berhanemeskel said.

Ratification ended four months of negotiations and pre-empted a strike by the union on the eve of President Bush’s inauguration. The union’s strike threat gave it the leverage in negotiations, Mr. Boardman said.

“We were ready to go. I think having the inaugural as a leverage point and having our membership willing to sacrifice money that they would have made was a key” to getting an agreement, he said.

Both sides likely would have suffered if union workers went on strike. Hotels are expected to be fully occupied, but they would have relied on less skillful replacement workers and potentially jeopardized relations with consumers.

“It would have been hard. You need professionals to do this. We were ready [to use replacement workers], but it’s never the same without your folks, without the people who really know your hotel,” said Ed Rudzinski, general manager of the Wardman Park Marriott Hotel, where the Texas State Society will host a party tonight for an estimated 12,000 guests.

Union members would have lost the opportunity to make tips and collect higher wages. The new contract lets workers collect twice their hourly wage on Inauguration Day — an average of $27 an hour.

Under the terms of the new contract, workers get a $1.30 per hour pay raise over three years — 50 cents the first year and 40-cent increases in the second and third years of the deal. Wage increases are retroactive to Sept. 15, when the previous labor agreement expired.

The hotels will boost their contribution to pensions from 61 cents an hour to $1 an hour by the third year of the deal. That could increase pensions for workers with 30 years’ service from $525 a month to as much as $780 a month by 2007.

Union negotiators also secured free health care coverage for current workers and new hires. Negotiators for the hotels lobbied for a two-tiered system that preserved free health care for current workers, but required new hires to share the cost of health care by paying a portion of their premiums.

“The proposal [management] gave us was an insult,” said Serkalem Nessibu, a phone operator and guest services employee at the Westin Embassy Row for 16 years.

The union was unable to persuade the hotels to agree to a two-year contract. Hotel negotiators wanted a three-year deal so expiration of the agreement doesn’t coincide with the expiration of contracts covering hotel workers in Boston, Chicago and New York and give the union broad leverage in future negotiations, said Peter Chatilovicz, a lawyer representing the Hotel Association of Washington.

Terms of the labor agreement are expected to be adopted by another 1,500 workers at 12 hotels in the area.

Workers there are members of Unite Here Local 25, but they negotiate separately and will use the contract voted on yesterday as the foundation for their own proposal.

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