News for the Hospitality Executive
|By Sean Mussenden, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Mar. 31, 2004 - After a $92 million expansion, the U.S. Army will reopen its military-only Walt Disney World resort today with twice as many hotel rooms -- and almost no traces of its once-unionized work force.
Before the Army shut down the Shades of Green resort in 2002 and laid off almost all of its staff, between 60 and 100 members of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 509 changed soldiers' sheets, poured their drinks and carried their luggage.
With Shades of Green set to reopen, that number is down to one, said union President David Wilson.
During the temporary closing, the Army contracted out many of the jobs once held by union members. And despite a promise that ex-employees would be given hiring preference when the resort reopened, Wilson said that union members have had little luck getting their old jobs back.
That includes Wilson, a former Shades of Green bartender who, as union head, has clashed frequently with management. "They're trying to bust up the union," he said.
Not true, said Pete Isaacs, chief operating officer of the U.S. Army Community and Family Support Center, which operates Shades of Green and military recreation resorts in Germany, Hawaii and South Korea.
The resorts are funded not from tax dollars, but by revenues from active and retired military men and women and Defense Department civilians who pay room fees on a sliding scale based on rank. The decision to use contract employees was purely economic, he said.
"This is not an attempt at union busting or to punish this particular union," he said. "This decision was based purely on operating and economic analysis."
In 2002, when most of Orlando's hotels were suffering from a travel-weary public, Shades of Green remained near capacity every night. Because it is an arm of the federal government and does not have to pay federal and state taxes, Shades of Green can offer discounted rates to troops.
Competition for its 287 rooms was fierce.
It shut down the hotel in 2002 to begin renovations and construction on 312 new rooms, a 600-space parking garage and a new restaurant. The Army owns the hotel, but has a 100-year lease on the land from Disney.
The resort laid off an estimated 265 of its 325 employees, both union and nonunion workers. The resort did a great deal to put its laid-off employees in new jobs during the two-year hiatus, hosting job fairs and, in some cases, giving advice in résumé writing, said former human resources director Larry Cochran.
"Anyone who left here without a job, they kinda, sorta wanted to," he said.
Management also signed an agreement with its workers guaranteeing preference in hiring when the resort reopened -- though no guarantee of a job. In contracting out for jobs like shuttle bus drivers, laundry workers and bellman service, the resort demanded those companies give preference to the workers it had laid off, Cochran said.
Many of those former employees must have found new jobs, Isaacs said, judging from the number who applied for "direct hire" positions at the resort. For example, he cited 71 new positions the resort added to accommodate its growth. Of 460 applications, 39 came from former employees, 12 of whom were hired, though it's unclear how many were members of Local 509.
Likely none, said Wilson, who tracks hiring of union members at the resort. Efren Bantug, 68, worked in the Shades of Green accounting office from 1994 until he was laid off in 2002 shortly before the closure.
He thought that when the resort reopened he would be hired back. When he applied for a similar job, he said he was told someone more qualified had been given the position. He did not believe the justification.
Wilson said he hopes to force Shades of Green management into arbitration over the rehiring issue.
"We have a concern that they discriminated against ex-union members. It's against the law to discriminate against union members" in hiring, said Local 509's attorney, Tobe Lev.
Wilson also complained that management attempted to infiltrate the union and vote it out of existence during the two-year construction period, when Wilson said only one union member remained on staff. Cochran, then the human resources director, took a less senior, nonmanagement position and attempted to join the union.
In a letter to the Federal Labor Relations Authority, Local 509's parent organization called the move an "unlawful attempt to control and interfere with a labor organization."
The FLRA, which resolves disputes between federal workers' unions and federal agencies, ultimately denied Cochran's bid to enter the union, Cochran said. Later, he circulated a petition to determine whether the remaining, largely nonunion Shades of Green workers would vote on keeping the union at the resort.
Wilson called that an effort to disband Local 509, but Cochran, in an interview, disagreed.
Some workers were upset with past union leadership, said Cochran, now a benefits analyst with the U.S. Army Community and Family Support Center in Alexandria, Va. "The whole point of doing it was to reform the union or get a new one in there. There was never an attempt to disband the union," he said.
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