|By Jeffrey B. Cohen, The Hartford
Courant, Conn.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 25, 2007 - When a labor dispute at the Connecticut Convention Center and its neighboring Hartford Marriott Downtown erupted into a boycott and lost business in summer 2006, Mayor Eddie A. Perez said his goal was to work as an honest broker, protecting the investment of the city and the rights of workers.
But in papers filed recently in state Superior Court, the hotel's owner says Perez's priorities were set by union halls, not city hall, and that Perez was a union puppet. The owner wants Perez to sit for a deposition in a lawsuit filed over whether city labor law should govern the dispute. The city objects and argues that testimony of Matt Hennessy, Perez's chief of staff, should suffice. That's unacceptable, says the hotel's owner.
"What I want to know is what the mayor thought, what the mayor [said], what the mayor did, who the mayor spoke to," Eric Brenner, attorney for the hotel, argued in court last week, according to a transcript. "I don't need Matt Hennessey [sic] to tell me that because Matt Hennessey doesn't know. I assume the mayor and Matt Hennessey are not together every second of the day."
Labor tensions at the new, state-built hotel and neighboring convention center boiled over last summer, as unions seeking to organize employees at both facilities -- Unite Here! and Service Employees International Union -- called for boycotts because they said they could not come to terms with the hotel management on how best to bring an employee vote on unionization.
Perez has said that because the hotel has a contract for millions in city money, it needs to abide by city law -- which says the Waterford Group, which developed the hotel and convention center, must sign a "labor peace" pact with any labor organization seeking to represent employees.
The two sides have differed on how workers would organize. Unite Here! believes federal labor laws are insufficient and don't adequately protect workers' rights and wants to negotiate an alternative. One popular strategy is a "card check" agreement, in which an employer typically pledges to recognize a union once 50 percent of the employees have signed a card declaring their support.
But Waterford has argued that federal labor laws for a secret-ballot election set out a fine playbook for organizing and should be followed.
In court briefs, Waterford's attorneys say that Perez is being used.
"Certain labor unions were pulling the strings behind the city's legal strategy and press strategy and it is these political interests ... that explain the mayor's actions," wrote Brenner in a brief on behalf of the Waterford Group. "The mayor wants to curry favor with certain politically powerful labor unions and has acquiesced in their demands without regard for limits federal law imposes on local officials."
An attorney for the city said the claim that Perez is a pawn of the unions isn't fair, and doesn't make sense because if Perez was being so used, he would have come out swinging even harder for the union.
"If you were at the beck and call of the union, then you'd be declaring the contract [between the city and Waterford] in default ... and making this into a multizillion-dollar lawsuit," said Walter Paulekas, an attorney hired by the city. "That's not what the mayor and the corporation counsel did."
In June 2006, the city filed suit, asking a state judge to rule on whether the city's "labor peace" law applied. The tensions then relaxed when the unions called for a "cooling off period"' in July 2006 and stopped their boycotts and pickets, preferring to wait for the judge's ruling. Last week, the judge heard arguments about whether Perez should sit for a deposition.
Union officials declined to comment. In response to a request for an interview with Perez, spokeswoman Sarah Barr said in an e-mail that the mayor's priority was for Waterford to follow city law.
Although he said both sides have been working together cooperatively, Paulekas -- the city's attorney -- said he found Brenner's comments "a little bit offensive."
"If the city was having its strings pulled, they'd be suing the Marriott directly as being in breach of contract," he said. Instead, they're simply asking a judge to rule on whether the city law should apply. "I think that's a little bit more reasonable."
Contact Jeffrey B. Cohen at email@example.com.
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