January 8, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
The labor peace that marked much of
the Adriaen's Landing project in Hartford has hit what could become
a major snag: Two unions, a hotel owner and the city are at odds
over the thorny issue of union representation.
The prospect of escalating labor tension
around the Connecticut Convention Center and the adjacent Marriott
Hotel has city officials worried that Hartford's new showpiece could
become the target of a major labor effort in its first year of operation.
Although the union is saying little
about its long-term plans, it has already contacted some convention
center clients to alert them to its position and the potential for
"This is the most critical time
for the convention center and the hotel, making sure that people
have a good experience and you have enough business," Hartford
Mayor Eddie A. Perez said. "So, yes, it raises a lot of concerns
for me and the folks on the city council.
"The plan was that we would have
a fully functioning convention center - and labor unrest was not
part of the equation."
It is a fight six years in the making,
with roots in the failed efforts of the hotel workers' unions to
convince state lawmakers to include them in the legislation that
created Adriaen's Landing. As it did then, the union is now pressing
for measures that would make it easier for workers to organize.
But while the legislation took care
of the construction trades, it did not cover janitors and part-time
banquet workers at the convention center and housekeepers, janitors
and clerks at the hotel.
Now, as Adriaen's Landing moves from
construction to operation, the union is bringing the debate back.
"The legislature established labor-peace
guidelines for the construction phase but not for the operation
phase, and the operation phase is up for grabs," said Antony
Dugdale, an official with Unite Here!, which is working to organize
220 workers at the hotel and 140 part-time workers at the convention
Another union, the Service Employees
International Union, is seeking to represent janitors at the convention
center, which has 60 full-time employees.
The dispute returned last summer as
the union sought to meet with Waterford Hotel Group Inc. to discuss
an organizing effort. Waterford's parent company has overseen construction
of the convention center and hotel, and now operates both.
In a letter from its Washington, D.C.,
attorney, the company declined to meet with the union, saying there
were no provisions for neutrality - rules that aim to ensure "labor
peace" - in the original Adriaen's Landing agreement. The attorney
added that fair and free union elections are allowed under federal
The matter has since unfolded on several
First, the city and Waterford are locked
in a disagreement over local ordinances that govern labor organizing
rules on city-funded projects. Because the Waterford group received
an $8 million loan and tax breaks worth between $15 million and
$25 million over 15 years, city officials say Waterford must adhere
to a city ordinance that guarantees labor peace.
The ordinance effectively says that,
as a union works to organize its workers, management agrees to not
interfere in the process and the union agrees not to strike.
"[Waterford] has done well in
Hartford, they've done good business in Hartford, they've benefited
from the city's partnership, and the city has benefited from the
partnership with them," said Matt Hennessy, the mayor's chief
of staff. "But the ordinance is the ordinance and the law is
the law, and it's hard to say that we can't uphold the law because
there's a good relationship."
He added that if Waterford wanted to
return the $8 million and drop the tax agreement, the legal issue
would go away.
"This is all in their hands,"
Hennessy said. "They don't have to do any of this, but they
also don't have to take all of this public money."
Officials at Waterford disagree.
"We believe [the ordinance] does
apply during the development process," said Len Wolman, chairman
and chief executive officer of the Waterford Group. "It is
our firm position that it doesn't apply to the operations of the
Wolman, whose company owns the Hartford Hilton - which has some
union labor and which built the convention center hotel with union
labor - bristled at suggestions that his company is anti-union.
"Have we not honored any agreement
or have we done anything that isn't in everyone's best interests?"
Wolman asked. "At the end of the day, our most important assets
are our associates ... and we want to make sure that they're happy."
Waterford said that if the workers
want to organize, they can do so under the provisions established
by the National Labor Relations Act, a process union officials say
takes too much time and is too prone to abuse.
"If they wanted to choose to organize,
that would be their choice. ... It's up to them how they want to
do it, and we would follow the process that would be set out and
respect it," Wolman said. "We don't know of any employees
that have asked to unionize. And we don't know who they would ask
to unionize with if they even asked to unionize."
Everyone is still at the table talking
about the issue, but they have not reached a resolution, officials
The union has told the state Democratic
Party - which the union knows will not cross a picket line - that
there could be unrest if no labor peace agreement is in place by
the party's scheduled convention at the center in May.
That could leave Democrats in the odd
position of staying away from a facility built with millions of
dollars approved by a legislature with a Democratic majority.
"We've been told that there's
a possibility that there will be a picket line, and we can't cross
a picket line," said Leslie O'Brien, executive director of
the Connecticut Democrats. "That's it. Period."
The union has begun to contact other
organizations that are considering events in Hartford to make them
aware of its position, officials said.
Other than the Democrats, no one has
contacted the state's Capital City Economic Development Authority
to talk about backing out, officials said.
"We're concerned [that] this hotel
and convention center [could] become the subject of a national labor
organizing effort because they're very high profile in a capital
city in a community that is pro-labor," Hennessy said. "Already,
organizations that have events planned at this facility have been
contacted by representatives of the unions to talk about the status
of the facility."
Michael Cicchetti, assistant director
of the state's Capital City Economic Development Authority, who
met with the state Democrats to try to ease their concerns, echoed
Wolman's position on the issue.
"The convention center certainly
has done nothing that would violate federal or state labor laws,"
Cicchetti said, adding that the state and its partners should not
be in the business of signing agreements with unions that don't
have the support of their workers.
"We cannot give away the rights
of our employees," he said. "They may choose to unionize,
but they may not want to unionize with Unite Here!
"The national labor relations
statutes set out a fair and [objective] process for this,"
But that process isn't good enough,
Dugdale said, noting that the workers have yet to decide what their
next step will be.
"The [national labor laws] allow
employers to engage in intimidating behavior and [have] very few
enforcement provisions for when employers break the law," said
Dugdale, who noted that his union and Waterford have a productive
relationship at the Hilton. "It also allows unions to engage
in strikes and picketing and boycotts."
"We don't think that's the best
direction to go in," Dugdale said. "It's not the best
for Hartford and it's not the best for the Waterford group and it's
not the best for the workers."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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