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Fight Over Benefits Escalates Between Sheraton Anchorage Hotel
 and UNITE Here Local 878

Union Seeking 48% Increase in Health and Welfare Payments
By Sean Manget, Alaska Journal of Commerce, AnchorageMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

May 28, 2010 --Adding fuel to a debate raging between the company managing the Sheraton Anchorage Hotel and Spa and the union representing its workers, the hotel switched its workers from the union's health insurance plan to a separate one May 1.

So far, the conflict has resulted in a boycott against the Sheraton hotel similar to one initiated by the union against the Hilton Anchorage hotel, and the union's president worries the hotel may try to break ties entirely with the union.

Marvin Jones, a former hospitality worker who now serves as the president of Local 878, said the new insurance plan's rates, which the hotel says aren't any higher than those incurred by the union plan, are only guaranteed for a year, where the union plan's rates are guaranteed for three years.

Jones fears rates paid by employees covered under the plan may increase by as much as 13 percent at the end of the year.

Mary Villarreal, an advisor to Remington, the company now managing the hotel, and a former senior vice president of the company, said these concerns are unfounded, and that the union is railing against the new plan because the union wants to keep the income it generated as employees paid into the union plan.

"The coverage itself is as good as or better than the union plan, in many respects much better," Villarreal said.

She said it includes discounts for health and fitness clubs, eye care, Lasik surgery and weight-loss programs. The new plan also offers $10,000 in life insurance coverage to those who qualify, she said, something she said is missing from the union plan.

The existing collective bargaining agreement between the hotel and the union expired October 2009. A year prior, Villarreal said she and a lawyer met with union representatives to negotiate the terms of a new agreement.

The two parties have yet to come to any agreement. The hotel has said it extended the bargaining agreement multiple times as the two parties debated its provisions, but the union's requests, which the hotel says included a 48 percent increase in health and welfare payments, were too much for the hotel to accommodate, Villarreal said.

To meet increasing economic pressure given the national recession and a downward trend in tourism, management asked hotel housekeepers to clean two extra rooms per shift, bringing the total they clean per day 17, the hotel said.

The hotel said it relocated supplies to each floor and made available house aids to help housekeepers in this task.

Jones said he believes adding the two rooms is an unfair burden for housekeepers, as the work is difficult and repetitive even without the extra load.

Jones and Villarreal both accuse the other's side of engaging in intimidation tactics.

"The union continues to hurt its own members by taking business from our hotel by harassing guests and our associates and promoting a boycott," said hotel general manager Denis Artiles in a company blog post.

Jones said that while Daniel Esparza, a union representative, would speak with employees and inform them of their rights under the union contract, management staff would sit nearby and leer at the employees.

Jones also said that since certain hotel offices have a clear view of the union building, Sheraton management employees often look to see if their employees are entering the union building.

Last month, the hotel sent a letter to the union informing it that Esparza was banned from the premises following accusations on the part of employees that he was harassing them. The letter claims that Esparza called an employee "trash" after she asked Esparza questions about union dues.

Esparza said the ban was really intended to cut him off from the hotel's Spanish-speaking employees, who only possess a working knowledge of English and often turn to him for information regarding the union contract and benefits.

Esparza and Jones believe that the hotel's management wants Esparza gone so they can keep these employees in the dark about their insurance benefits.

Esparza said many Spanish-speaking employees were tricked into signing a decertification petition that would have hotel employees sever ties with the union. He said employees were told that they were signing up to receive new uniforms or increased pay. When he informed them of what they were really singing on to, he said, they signed revocation forms that would have the effect of negating their signatures on the decertification.

Esparza said the hotel's accusations against him don't hold water when considered in light of his involvement in the community. He performs community service work with Anchorage's Latino community and a local Catholic church, serving as a liaison between the Spanish-speaking community and the archbishop.

"I've been a part of the community for 35 years. I see these people in church," Esparza said regarding the employees.

Jones said the union has filed 13 unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, and that he believes 11 of these charges will be ruled in favor of the union.

The union filed these charges partially in the wake of accusations that four employees were fired by the hotel for handing out literature encouraging patrons to take their business elsewhere due to the boycott. The hotel's blog says that the employees were fired for infractions they had previously been counseled for, but hotel policy prevents the disclosure of further details.

The hotel's blog says it has also filed charges against the union with the National Labor Relations Board.

Sean Manget can be reached at sean.manget.@alaskajournal.com.

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To see more of the Alaska Journal of Commerce, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.alaskajournal.com.

Copyright (c) 2010, Alaska Journal of Commerce, Anchorage

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