|The Boston GlobeMcClatchy-Tribune
Dec. 11, 2006 - THE NUMBER of African-American hotel workers across the United States appears to be falling at the same time that foreign-born hospitality workers are rising into the middle class. The disappearing African-American hotel worker is just one of many problems that perpetuates an urban underclass. But it is a problem, at least, that a fast-growing, private sector union wants to tackle.
John Wilhelm, president of Unite Here, which represents roughly 200,000 unionized hotel workers across the United States, says that new immigrant populations, including black workers from the Caribbean, have been replacing African-Americans in hotel service jobs for about a decade. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, say local union officials, African-Americans now comprise only about 6 percent of workers in downtown hotels. Without access to comprehensive hiring data from hotel management, says Wilhelm, shop stewards in Boston and across the country are now surveying their individual hotels to compile figures on African-American hiring.
Wilhelm says some of the decline might reflect perceptions among African-Americans that the hotel industry offers "dead end jobs." But he also fears that hotel operators who praise the work ethic of new immigrants may actually be more interested in hiring workers who are less likely to know and assert their rights than people born in the United States. So at collective bargaining tables around the country, including Boston, union negotiators are calling for the creation of committees composed of hotel workers, community leaders, and hotel managers to determine the extent of the problem and craft solutions.
Wilhelm says he is "astonished" by hotel executives who resist the creation of such working groups. Last month, contract negotiations in Boston erupted into a heated exchange on the issue after union officials claimed that only 32 African-Americans out of 1,308 employees held jobs in three Starwood-operated downtown hotels. Bob Batterman, the hotel industry negotiator, pegs the figure at roughly 200 African-Americans working at four downtown Starwood hotels. Though the numbers dispute could crop up again in negotiations scheduled for today, Batterman says that Boston hotels "are prepared to do whatever outreach is necessary" to underrepresented groups.
Strict racial quotas are unwise. Yet mere outreach efforts often lack teeth. A plan with goals and timetables, however, could still emerge from the committees. But first, the hotels need to share their data with the unions, to get a common understanding on the depth of the problem. Then African-Americans who shun hotel jobs might warm to the fact that, in an industry where managers prefer to promote from within, there really are no dead-end jobs.
Copyright (c) 2006, The Boston Globe
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