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Union Workers Taken by Surprise as Westin Providence Hotel Owner Imposes
 20% Pay Cut and Increases Employee Health Care Contribution 43%

By Philip Marcelo, The Providence Journal, R.I.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

March 17, 2010 --PROVIDENCE -- Westin Providence hotel workers, who have been without a contract since October, say they'll decide whether to strike or call for a boycott of the downtown hotel on Thursday -- the first day of the NCAA men's basketball tournament at the Dunkin' Donuts Center -- after the hotel owners this week unilaterally imposed deep salary cuts and significant increases in health insurance contributions.

The hotel, which is connected to the Rhode Island Convention Center and arena complex via a skybridge, has sought to scale back compensation and benefits for its approximately 250 employees (about 200 of which are unionized) because of low occupancy and declining revenue since the recession took hold, according to Ralph V. Izzi Jr., communications director for the Procaccianti Group, the Cranston-based firm that owns the hotel.

The hotel operator imposed the new terms, effective March 14, after months of negotiations with the union reached an impasse, Izzi said in a statement. "The hotel understands the 'human impact' of such a decision; however the 'reset' is absolutely critical to preserve existing jobs and to ensure the long-term sustainability of one of the state's landmark assets."

But Local 217 of Unite Here, the union representing Westin workers (and other downtown hotels), says the imposition of the new terms came as a complete surprise to employees, who were notified on March 11, during contract negotiations.

"This came out of the blue," says Mark Lavendier, a front desk agent at the hotel and union member.

The union, whose contract expired Oct. 31, 2009, says it has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the company with the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that investigates labor complaints.

According to the company and the union, the new terms would cut union salaries by 20 percent. Employee contributions to health care would increase to 43 percent of the total premium cost.

For those on the Blue Cross & Blue Shield family plan, that means $101.64 a week; for individuals, it's now $35.79 a week. Originally, union members paid about $44 a week for the family plan and $9.75 a week for the individual plan.

The union says that members would also have to pay a $500 health-care deductible for the first time. "It's a double-whammy of a pay cut and a health-care increase," says Lavendier, who said he stands to lose $200 a week in pay.

The Procaccianti Group maintains that the compensation plan, while reduced, maintains "above-market compensation for its union employees, with benefits that meet or exceed those found in the Providence market."

The hotel has offered to reopen negotiations with the union in a year, according to Izzi, who declined to say how much savings the hotel would realize under the new terms.

The union, in response, is contemplating a strike, a boycott or both.

Union organizer Francis Engler says the union has been taking a vote of its members since the hotel management announced the new terms and will announce the results of the vote at 4 p.m. on Thursday.

"Obviously, a strike would be the most extreme measure, but it's on the table," Engler says. In a boycott, the union would call on the public not to patronize the 564-room hotel.

Engler says the announcement is purposely timed to hit at the hotel's busiest week of the season: the first round of the South and Midwest regionals of the annual NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament on Thursday, which is making its first appearance in the city since 1996.

The Westin, which the Procaccianti Group acquired from the state in 2005, is one of eight Providence area hotels that the NCAA has designated for teams, officials, and media.


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