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 Unionization Fight Hurting Business At the Connecticut Convention Center
and 409-room Marriott Hartford Downtown; Disagreement Over
How Workers Should Be Allowed to Organize

By Jeffrey B. Cohen, The Hartford Courant, Conn.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 
May 25, 2006 - The labor dispute at the year-old Connecticut Convention Center and its adjacent hotel has exploded, scaring away the state's Democratic Party convention, threatening the United Church of Christ's 2007 conference and putting Hartford on the front lines of a national union organizing effort.

The dispute - not over wages or working conditions but, rather, over how to best unionize workers at the two facilities - has many wondering why the issue has stirred so contentious a fight between the business-friendly mayor and the management at the city's new convention showpiece.

Mayor Eddie Perez has moved to revoke a $30 million tax deal on the Marriott, saying a city ordinance provides that such tax deals are contingent upon agreements between project developers and unions. Those agreements are designed to prevent labor disruptions. The ordinance protects workers as well as the city's investment, Perez says.

Although political observers and city leaders say they understand why Perez would back a union that represents many low-wage minority workers, they also say there's a time to take a hard line and a time to work things out. They worry that Perez - one of the most vocal cheerleaders for the city's revitalization - might be going too far, allowing the dispute to jeopardize convention business.

"One of the great things about Eddie is that I think he's serious about Hartford being `open for business,'" said R. Nelson "Oz" Griebel, head of the MetroHartford Alliance, repeating one of the mayor's frequent sound bites. "But I think you're sending a message that we're really not open for business." 

"Image still matters."

City political watchers ascribe various possible political motives to Perez's firm stand against the Waterford Group and its head, Len Wolman: He might be trying to solidify his role as strong mayor, he might be trying to protect Hartford workers and residents who were told they would reap the benefits of Adriaen's Landing or he might be trying to cozy up to the service workers' unions.

"You need votes," said Marilyn Rossetti, a former city council member, referring to union support. "But you also need money to run, and I know moneyed people in Hartford who don't think this is the right thing."

"People connected to the Wolmans or who know the Wolmans, they spread pretty far," she said. "So the next time Eddie wants to have one of those big fundraisers, maybe the check won't come, or maybe it will, and it will be a lot less."

That's the political dimension, she said. But then there's the Perez dimension.

"I absolutely think he's doing this because he thinks it's right," Rossetti said. "I think what most people are worried about is, look, don't do something on principle that does something destructive for both of you."

At the issue's core is a disagreement over how workers at the convention center and the hotel should be allowed to organize.

Unite Here!, the union seeking to organize convention center and hotel employees, has long contended that federal labor laws do not adequately protect workers who want to organize, making them vulnerable to intimidation and harassment. Unite Here! wants Waterford to sign a "labor peace" agreement that would ensure greater protections for the workers during an organizing campaign in exchange for a promise from the union that it would not picket, boycott or protest.

Waterford contends that it needs only to abide by the National Labor Relations Act, and the company is asking federal labor officials to conduct an election.

Perez says his insistence on a "labor peace" agreement between the union, Unite Here!, and Waterford has nothing to do with votes or money or political power. "The law is the law," he said.

But Perez might also have opened a new door Wednesday, saying that the current labor dispute could go away if Waterford and the union would simply begin fruitful discussions that result in a union election - something that Waterford has been uninterested in doing.

"If good-faith discussions are going on, we wouldn't be talking about any boycott, and we wouldn't be talking about pulling the tax-fixing agreement," Perez said. "If there's some kind of an election, I don't care how we get there."

Wolman has stuck by his position that federal laws are adequate and that no additional negotiations are necessary.

"We're following the law," he said. "We would never want to lose any conventions."

Meanwhile, as a second group backed out of an event at the center - a group affiliated with Prudential has canceled a luncheon, the state said Wednesday - the consensus among political observers is that all parties need to work toward a resolution before too much damage is done. 

"You have a lot of people who voted for the convention center and the hotel who really didn't want to," said Thomas D. Ritter, former Democratic speaker of the state House, who worked to make Adriaen's Landing a reality. "They gave the benefit of the doubt that it would help Hartford."

Now they are growing concerned that the underpinnings of Hartford's revitalization are at risk.

"They're going to kill the golden goose," said Ritter. "There will be no jobs for anybody." 


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Copyright (c) 2006, The Hartford Courant, Conn.

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