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The USA's Largest Hotel Union Targeting Hilton Hotels
in New York City for a Major Labor Battle 
by Juan Gonzalez, Daily News, New York
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

March 2, 2006 - The country's largest hotel union has targeted the Hilton Hotels Corp. for what could be the first-ever nationwide hotel strike this summer.

"We've decided to isolate Hilton because they are the most recalcitrant and belligerent employer in the industry," said Peter Ward, president of the New York Hotel Trades Council.

A major labor battle is not good news for this city's hotel owners, who enjoyed sky-high room prices and record occupancy rates in 2005.

And it's certainly not good news for Hilton, which currently owns the two biggest hotels in town, the New York Hilton and the Waldorf-Astoria, and manages four others, the Times Square and Millenium Hiltons, the Embassy Suites and the Doubletree Guest Suites Times Square.

Labor agreements with the city's 25,000 hotel workers expire July 1. But bargaining starts later this month, and Ward has already made it clear to the hotel owners association that he will insist on two separate sets of talks - one with Hilton and one with everybody else.

And New York is not the only place the Hilton chain is facing the isolation treatment.

Other locals of UNITE-HERE, the national hotel workers union, are pursuing the same strategy in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Boston, Chicago and Washington.

For the first time in its history, the national union has timed its contracts so they all expire within a few months of each other, starting with Los Angeles in April.

That means the union will be in a position to exert maximum pressure on the entire industry - with multiple walkouts, if necessary, leaders say - by early summer.

New York is the key to the strategy because it has the biggest number of union members and the best-paid ones in the industry.

Ward, meanwhile, has made meticulous preparations for what is shaping up to be mother of all hotel battles.

In 2004, he persuaded his membership to overwhelmingly approve a special $10-per-week dues checkoff to create a giant strike fund. The fund has amassed $20 million and is expected to top $25 million by July.

The union also has recruited major political figures like 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards to speak at hotel worker rallies around the country.

Yesterday, in the campaign's war room at union headquarters in midtown, a map of Manhattan titled "2006 Strike" indicated just how far along the planning is.

The map showed all city hotels divided into color-coded geographic zones with specific assignments for union organizers. Next Thursday, more than 3,000 of the union's "action team" leaders will assemble for a pre-bargaining update.

Given how well the industry is doing right now, Ward sounded optimistic about reaching a deal with the main owners' association.

But Hilton is a different matter.

"They constantly violate our contract, so we're not going to allow them to be part of any multi-employer negotiations," Ward said.

He pointed to some $2.6 million in back pay the union won in arbitration awards from Hilton hotels for more than 600 employees during the past five years because of contract violations. In one case, 45 banquet workers at the New York Hilton were awarded a total $42,000 by arbitrators because the hotel had failed to pay them their tips.

A Hilton representative in New York yesterday referred all questions about the union contract to Kathy Shepard, the company's vice president for communications at its corporate headquarters in Los Angeles. 

Shepard did not return several phone calls seeking comment. 


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Copyright (c) 2006, Daily News, New York

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