|By Matthew Stolle, Post-Bulletin,
Rochester, Minn.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
August 1, 2007 - For 18 former Holiday Inn Express employees, Christmas finally arrived. It just came seven months late.
Inside the Local 21 union hall, there was holiday music and Christmas trees, evergreen garlands and tables decorated with red and green tablecloths -- everything you might expect to see at a Christmas party although not on a sweltering late-July day.
The cause of this belated celebration was a Christmas gift of sorts: A federal judge's ruling ordering the downtown hotel's employer to offer full reinstatement to the 18 former housekeepers and maintenance workers who lost their jobs four days before Christmas.
The ruling, issued last month, required the hotel's owners, Texas-based CMPJ Enterprises, which bought the hotel last December, to restore the status quo until the dispute is resolved by an administrative law judge.
"We're not going to let somebody ruin what was ruined for them once. We felt it was appropriate to show them that they deserved a holiday, even if it is belated," said Dave Blanchard, business manager for UNITE HERE Local 21, the union that represented the workers.
Five of the original 18 employees -- three housekeepers and two maintenance workers -- have since accepted job offers from the Holiday Inn Express to return to work, Blanchard said. The rest have found jobs at other union hotels and probably won't return.
Michael Bhatka, the hotel's general manager, did not return calls seeking comment.
A sense of subdued celebration filled the union hall. The union has so far prevailed at every stage of the dispute, but the temporary injunction was a particularly welcome development for the union because such orders are not frequently issued in such disputes, Blanchard said.
"You're more likely to see a unicorn than you are to hear a 10-J injunction," he said.
Hotel employees at the party said they felt a measure of vindication from the judge's decision, but several confessed to a lingering sense of bitterness over how they were treated.
"I was there 30 years. I'm happy where I am," said Roxanne Swarthout, a hotel housekeeper who has since found work at the Sunstone-owned Kahler Inn & Suites.
Alicejean Murphy, also a housekeeper, had just bought a car when she lost her job and quickly fell behind in paying her bills. She also has found work at the Kahler hotel. She recently received a raise and is "really comfortable" in her job.
"I have no desire to change," Murphy said.
The dispute between Local 21 and CMPJ Enterprises erupted almost as soon as the new owners bought the hotel from Sunstone Hotel Investors Inc. Union workers were told they no longer had jobs. Employees said they found the timing of the dismissals particularly brutal, coming four days before Christmas. Several of the employees had worked there for at least a decade.
The new owners argued that the transaction only included purchase of the physical plant and assets and that the employees were never part of the deal. They also argued at a hearing that they had nothing to do with the firing of the hotel's union employees.
Prior to their dismissal, union workers at the Holiday Inn Express received a compensation package that included health insurance, vacation time and a pension. Under the new owners, compensation included only an hourly wage.
The federal judge's order also requires CMPJ Enterprises to compensate returning workers under the terms and conditions that existed at the time of their dismissal, a condition that is expected to benefit new workers hired by the new owners, Blanchard said.
The fired employees became minor celebrities and referred as the "Rochester 19."
"I hope that you feel proud that you made a big change" in the community, said state Rep. Tina Liebling, a Democrat from Rochester. "This incident really raised the whole question of what kind of community are we. What do we stand for and what are our values?"
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Copyright (c) 2007, Post-Bulletin, Rochester, Minn.
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