When Michael Jones and fellow employees rallied outside the Hyatt Regency Baltimore in June to call attention to conditions there, they knew their supervisors wouldn’t be thrilled – but they didn’t expect termination.
Jones, a dishwasher-steward at the hotel for 10 years, was one of 15 waiters, housekeepers, kitchen workers and others who put their names on a leaflet showing they supported discussions with the union, Unite Here.
“Me and my friends decided to stand up,” Jones recalled yesterday. “They fired me, within the space of two weeks,” along with two co-workers.
Unite Here documented the charges by Jones and his co-workers of alleged intimidation, threats, surveillance and ultimately four firings aimed at squelching the union and reported them to the National Labor Relations Board.
On November 1, the NLRB filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the company and scheduled a January 14 trial – validation that Jones, 37, tried to describe yesterday.
“It made me excited. It made me happy. It almost brought tears to my eyes,” Jones said, flanked by co-workers, union organizers and supporters at a press event called to publicize the milestone in their case.
“It was kind of unreal until then,” said Regina Davis, an on-call banquet server who makes $4.50 per hour, plus tips.
“It’s kind of given some more people courage to come forward.”
In an emailed statement, meanwhile, the hotel’s general manager Gail Smith-Howard said the chain has “a long history of strong relations with unions and we respect the right of our associates to choose whether or not to join a union.”
“We are extremely disappointed that the NLRB has chosen, at the urging of Unite Here, to view management decisions at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore – made in full accordance with hotel policies and designed only to promote associate well-being and guest satisfaction – as anti-union,” Smith-Howard said.
The One-Minute Rule
Unite Here said workers were written up for being more than one minute late, a rule Jones said was never previously strictly enforced.
The complaint details how a hotel manager “via text message, interrogated employees about their union activities” and how a human resources official and security director “outside of the Employee Entrance…engaged in surveillance of employees engaged in union activities.”
In her statement, Smith-Howard said Unite Here has made “false accusations” about the Hyatt’s workplace environment and said that management’s “disciplinary decisions are based solely on employee conduct” and are not discriminatory.
Jones also spoke about the problems he said prompted employees to want to organize in the first place, including the increasing use of lower-paid temporary workers. He said there were 32 full-time employees in his department when he started in 2002 and now there are six.
“I have a friend who was a temp for five years. He tried to get a permanent job but he never could get one,” Jones said.
“It’s just very stressful when you have three people doing the work one person used to do,” said Brian Dellar, a bartender at the hotel restaurant who said he just worked a 12-hour shift. “You just see them pinching hours, pinching hours. You wonder if it’s all going to fall apart. Something’s going to go wrong. A guest is going to complain. And it’s going to be used against me.”
Even those who do have permanent jobs find the health care benefits inadequate, Dellar said. “They’re a joke – most people are on their spouse’s plan if that’s possible.”
One problem with the company health benefits, Dellar said, is that workers lose coverage if their hours drop below 30-hours-per-week. He noted that hours are often cut, especially during the slow winter months, and that the company has changed the cut-off from 20 hours a week to 30.
Few Union Hotels in Baltimore
Father Ty Hullinger, of St. Anthony’s De Padua, speaking in support of the workers, said the Catholic Church has a long tradition of supporting unions. “When you deny the right to organize, you deny human dignity,” he said.
Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore NAACP, started off her remarks with an apology.
The NAACP just held their annual fundraiser at the Hyatt and this year the “Freedom Fund Banquet” was an even splashier affair, coinciding with the chapter’s 100th anniversary.
“We’d been planning to have this event there for a long time,” Hill-Aston said. “In the future I will never sign a contract to use any hotel without the permission of the unions.” She said the stakes are higher for hotel workers today than they were for her as a teenage hotel waitress in the 1970s: “A lot of young people do this [work] as a career . . . to take care of their homes and families.”
Although Unite Here has stopped short of calling for a boycott of the Hyatt, others, along with the NAACP, are steering clear of it. Ernie Greco, president of the Metropolitan Baltimore AFL-CIO said his union’s international conventions are not being held in the Hyatt because of its stance with the union.
“They’re not coming here because they’re not letting the union organize,” Greco said, adding that most of the city’s hotels are not union.
Later, he had to consult with Unite Here Local 7 president Roxie Herbekian to come up with the few city hotels with union representation. “The Hilton,” she said, “and …umm… the Hilton Pikesville.”
Because they have no representation, Herbekian said, Baltimore hotel workers make 3/5 of what their counterparts in other cities make at hotels that charge the same room rates.”