July 2, 2006
It looks like a very bad labor quagmire down at the Marriott Hotel and Connecticut Convention Center, the riverfront fulcrum of Hartford's hopes for revival.
For now, it appears to be a mess that benefits no one. Clearly, the multifront war is bringing unwelcome attention to the city and is hurting the convention center at a crucial time.
As bad as it looks, this colossal gum-up just might help the group that, so far, is something of an afterthought: the nearly 350 hotel and convention workers.
A least four unions are preparing to organize, or actually working to sign up, employees at the complex. Two of the unions, working in tandem, are inciting a boycott of the hotel and convention center, driving away several sizable convention groups already.
This, just as the year-old, $275 million, state-owned hall is trying to gain traction at a fiercely competitive time for convention centers of its type.
The boycotting unions say the company that owns the hotel and manages the convention center - Waterford Group Inc. - refuses to bargain fairly and is waging what Anthony Dugdale, a Unite Here! organizer, calls an "aggressive anti-union campaign."
Len Wolman, the Waterford president, says his company has not only followed federal labor laws, but also has - so far, at least - forsaken its right to try to persuade workers to remain union-free.
The city of Hartford, for its part, has sued Waterford, saying the hotel has an obligation to reach a "labor peace" agreement under city ordinances because it enjoys a $30 million tax break. No one knows exactly what labor peace means, but at the least it requires the company to satisfy the unions enough to end the boycott and picketing.
Waterford has taken the unusual step of petitioning for an immediate, secret-ballot union vote under federal rules.
Michael Cicchetti, the No. 2 official at the state agency that owns the convention center, said a Unite Here! official openly admitted the union will never agree to a secret-ballot election, instead insisting on a "card-check" agreement that grants collective bargaining based on a percentage of workers who petition for it. Dugdale, in response, said Cicchetti is twisting his words.
Further mucking up the works, we have the specter of competition between unions for the same workers. Union leaders don't like this one bit. They are loath to admit it even exists - though, in this case, it's growing more impossible for them to deny with each passing day.
Competition between unions has been rare, to say the least, over the past 50 years. What's doubly odd here is that the unions competing - Unite Here! and the Service Employees International Union on one side, the Laborers International Union on the other - are all members of the coalition that broke away from the AFL-CIO last summer.
Lastly, we have racial politics playing out under the surface. The Laborers, led by Charles LeConche, ticked off Hartford's Latino community in May by picketing a Latino coalition's fundraising dinner and scaring away its star speaker, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. This, over a flap with a sponsor of the event, ING Group, even though ING pulled out.
Now, the Laborers union has stepped into this fray, signing a labor peace deal offered by Waterford, which gives the union access to convention workers at a time when Hartford's popular Latino leader, Mayor Eddie Perez, is suing Waterford over labor peace.
Dugdale, at Unite Here!, calls the Waterford offer "ridiculous." The deal requires any union signing it to end boycotts and pickets, and also imposes a strict 60-day organizing time limit. Further, there is no language in the deal that requires Waterford to remain neutral.
But it isn't just the Laborers who agreed to the deal. At least one other union has signed it, a source involved in talks said Friday. Neither Wolman nor officials at the state agency that owns the convention center would discuss who had signed the deal.
It would be tempting to say that Waterford and the Capital City Economic Development Authority, which owns the center, should offer a truly neutral deal that explicitly bars them from trying to sway workers from unionizing- a deal that would end the boycott.
And it would be tempting to say that Unite Here! and the service employees union are hurting the city exactly at a time when Hartford is starting to turn around its rotten national image. After all, pay and benefits are not the prime issue here. Wolman says the workers' overall compensation package at the Marriott is the same as the package at the unionized downtown Hartford Hilton, which Waterford owns and operates - though he wouldn't give details. Clearly, workers have been hurt by canceled events.
And it would be tempting, moreover, to chide the region's unions for competing to sign up well-paid hotel and convention center employees at a time when tens of thousands of service and retail workers in Connecticut toil at barely more than minimum wage, unprotected by unions.
Tempting, but wrong. We've had decades of cooperation between unions and management, and cooperation among unions. There's a strong argument to be made that all this "labor peace" hurts workers in the long run.
So maybe peace isn't the answer. Let the unions disrupt commerce that's important to the region. That is the best leverage unions have, after all. Let the unions fight with management, rather than colluding with exclusive peace agreements that guarantee them members and deliver to management a compliant union leadership.
Let the unions fight among themselves for employees of a complex that's relatively accessible because it receives public money.
"Let's let it rip and trust that rank-and-file workers know what's best for them," said Jonathan Cutler, associate professor of sociology at Wesleyan University and a leading proponent of competition among unions.
Ah, the rank-and-file workers. If they can survive this imbroglio, they might come out the winners.