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The Fontainebleau Closes for Two Year Renovation; Unite Here's South
 Florida Union Loses Hundreds of Its Members
 
By Douglas Hanks III, The Miami Herald
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Mar. 17, 2006 - When the landmark Fontainebleau Resort shut down most of its operations this week for a two-year renovation project, it left workers, tourism boosters and vacationers pining for days gone by.

Add labor organizer Andy Balash to the nostalgic list.

With almost 600 workers out of jobs, Balash lost his second-largest pool of union members. And with a second of South Florida's four unionized hotels set to close this summer, hotel organizers face their biggest challenge since the 9/11 terrorist attacks sparked a wave of hospitality-industry layoffs.

"It breaks my heart," said Balash, who runs Unite Here's South Florida office, on a recent Saturday evening at the union's third-floor office suite off the Palmetto Expressway in North Miami. "There's nothing you can do," he said. "It's capitalism at work."

The Fontainebleau's closing of 876 rooms will bump up the Sheraton Bal Harbour to Unite Here's No. 2 spot, behind Hollywood's Westin Diplomat. But not for long. Starwood Hotels plans to demolish that resort this summer to make way for a smaller hotel and condominium complex.

The last several decades brought a steady decline for organized labor across the country. But the fall has been particularly steep for hotel unions in South Florida, once a significant force in the region's vaunted tourism industry. Industry watchers peg the hotel unions' declining influence on corruption scandals, Florida's conservative labor laws, the decline of the hotel industry in the 1970s and '80s, and the reluctance of immigrant workers to organize.

"When I opened the Hilton Plaza in '67, the union was at its height," Stuart Blumberg, president of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association, said of the Miami Beach hotel, one of at least two dozen beach properties with unions at the time. "The hotels became old. The workforce was changing."

Balash, a former New York police cadet who came to Miami in 1994 as an organizer, notes that all the news is not bad for Unite Here.

Miami Beach hotels led the South in terms of organizing hotel workers, and Unite Here managed to double its membership rolls to 3,000 in the last decade by increasing their foothold in unionized hotels and representing more professions, such as airplane-food handlers.

And the union has won a rare neutrality agreement by the developers of a new 320-room Marriott on city-owned beachfront in Hollywood. The deal, which Mayor Mara Giulianti said the city required of developer Ocean Properties of Delray Beach, allows the union to represent the hotel's workers if a majority fills out membership cards.

Though the union's contract at the Bal Harbour runs through 2009, Unite Here will lose 385 dues-paying members while the new hotel is built.

But now Unite Here has let the staff go to prepare for the loss of dues, cutting its nine-person office down to five. Until the hotels reopen, Balash said, the union will rely on subsidies from the national office to pay its bills.

For all the organizational and financial challenges, Balash contends Unite Here's members will suffer the most without the Fontainebleau and the free health insurance, automatic raises and job protection that came with the hotel's union contract.

Karl Reid, an employee at the Fontainebleau for 19 years, said he made $25 an hour working as a banquet waiter -- a wage that includes tips built into the bill. He doesn't expect to have trouble finding work, but the 54-year-old doesn't think he can replace his pay.

Reid said two hotels offered him between $12 and $20 an hour. And both hotels would only offer Reid a slot on their "on-call" lists, meaning the work could be spotty.

"Nobody will hire you full-time right away," he said.

Unite Here is counting on the lure of union benefits to maintain its diminished foothold in South Florida once the Fontainebleau reopens. But while a Fontainebleau spokesman said the hotel expects to remain in the union when it reopens, the size of that union isn't a sure thing.

Florida's right-to-work laws allow any employee to decline union membership, so Unite Here hopes to lure back as many former Fontainebleau workers as it can.

About 225 of the estimated 585 departing Fontainebleau workers opted to retire and collect their one-time pension payouts -- that removes about 40 percent of Unite Here's membership at the hotel.

Union staffers have handed out forms for departing workers to rejoin the union in 2008, and will be tracking their whereabouts for the next two years in hopes they will return to the Fontainebleau workforce. But Jim Hendricks, a Chicago labor lawyer who represents employers, said the union can't count on luring its members back.

"Once they establish seniority somewhere else, I don't know if they're willing to disrupt their lives again," Hendricks said. "The union has a tough road to hoe."

Though he speaks fondly of the Fontainebleau and its union, Reid said he can't predict whether he'll come back.

"It all depends on what they're paying," he said. "That's the bottom line."

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Copyright (c) 2006, The Miami Herald

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