- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

Washington’s unionized hotel workers met yesterday to plan for a strike after labor contract negotiations with management broke down.

“It’s possible tomorrow,” John Boardman, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 25 secretary-treasurer, said last night about the union’s intent to strike. “We’ll be fully ramped up and ready to go.”

The threat of a hotel strike comes at a difficult time for the local tourism industry, which is bouncing back after a downturn following the September 11 terror attacks. Fall also is a peak time for area hotels as rooms fill up with tourists and convention goers.

During meetings at the Masonic Temple downtown, leaders of Local 25 arranged for picket signs to be made, assigned strike captains and planned food kitchens for workers dependent on their paychecks for groceries.

“Obviously if you’re going to engage 3,500 people in this plan, you have to have good logistics,” Mr. Boardman said.

The union represents hospitality workers at 14 major hotels in Washington, which control more than a quarter of the city’s hotel rooms.

Both sides held out hope for a last-minute agreement on a new contract after negotiations broke down Wednesday evening.

Local 25 voted Monday to authorize a strike. Their contract expired Wednesday at midnight.

Mr. Boardman said negotiations broke down during discussion of a union counterproposal that would forbid management from disciplining workers for failing to fulfill their duties when they are provided with inadequate supplies.

The Hotel Association of Washington, D.C., accuses HERE of engaging in a grab for power by demanding the same 2006 expiration date on its next contract as UNITE-HERE contracts in other cities. A single contract date would give the union greater leverage in future negotiations.

UNITE-HERE is the international organization that includes Local 25.

The hotels are downplaying the effect of a strike.

“Should a work stoppage occur, there are solid plans in place to accommodate the guests,” said Lynn Lawson, spokeswoman for the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C. The plans include using management staff to fill in for striking workers.

“The hotels are open and operating,” Miss Lawson said. “It’s premature to discuss any long-term impact.”

The association represents major hotel chains such as Marriott International, Hilton Hotels, Starwood Hotels & Resorts and Hyatt Hotels & Resorts.

Local 25 members who attended the planning meeting said they did not want a strike but felt they had no better alternative.

“The issue is work overload,” said Howell Isha, a bellman at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. “At the end of the shift, you can’t even walk. You’re tired, you’re beat.”

Patrick Deyhill, a front-desk telephone operator at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, said, “Since 9/11, they haven’t been hiring many people at all. The hotels are full to capacity and less people to do the work.”

City officials say they are staying informed about the labor dispute.

“We talked to all sides and we want to be as helpful as possible,” said Robert C. Bobb, city administrator.

The tourism industry is anxiously watching the dispute, hoping that a strike does not occur.

September and October are the busiest months of the year for District hotels, which benefit from renewed business travel with Congress in session, numerous conferences and tourists getting in one last vacation.

The average daily rate for Washington hotels peaks during the fall, surpassing July’s rate of $156.86. Hotel occupancy has jumped back up to levels before the September 11 terrorist attacks. Occupancy rates in July were at 76.3 percent, 4.8 percent higher than a year earlier.

“That is gigantic,” said William A. Hanbury, president and chief executive officer of the Washington DC Convention and Tourism Corp., the tourism marketing arm of the city. “The last thing this recovering industry needs is a strike,” he said, and many of the hotels involved in the dispute are the largest and busiest in the city.

So far, hotel customers appear unaware of labor trouble among hotel employees and management.

Los Angeles resident Paul Fowler saw no drop in service during his stay at the Hilton Washington & Towers on Connecticut Avenue. “It’s been great so far and I’m not too concerned,” said Mr. Fowler who was staying at the hotel for a Global Supplier Conference.

Bob Rhine, who also was staying at the hotel for the conference, said he would not change his travel plans if a strike did disrupt service. “I certainly hope there aren’t any problems because I’m stuck here” through today as well, said Mr. Rhine, a St. Louis resident and a senior manager with the Boeing Co.

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