April 19, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
Under pressure by union organizers, the owner of the new Marriott Hartford Downtown made a surprise countermove Tuesday, asking the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a vote asking hotel employees if they want to unionize.
"What this does is it squarely puts the decision with the employees," said Len Wolman, chairman and chief executive officer of the hotel's owner, The Waterford Group. "Not with the city, not with the politicians, not with the union, not with us."
Unite Here!, the union seeking to organize workers at the hotel and the adjacent Connecticut Convention Center, says federal labor laws don't adequately protect workers who are trying to organize. It wants the hotel to sign a "labor peace" agreement that would set ground rules for an organizing campaign that go beyond the existing laws.
"We don't think the petition has any merit," union spokesman Antony Dugdale said of Waterford's filing. "It's just a publicity stunt on their part."
While requests from unions seeking to organize employees are fairly common, requests from employers pushing for a vote are not, said John Cotter, assistant regional director for the NLRB. He doesn't know whether the facts in this case will merit an election, and he is reviewing the matter.
Cotter said new tactics by the unions are pushing the government's administrative envelope.
"The unions are now taking the stand that our processes are too cumbersome, that [they are] being abused by lawyers and others who know how to create extensive delay, and that the employer has found ways to discourage employees from joining the union without outright violating the law," he said. "Unions - in particularly Unite - are seeking to go around the board recognition process."
Even though Cotter said this is a rare move by an employer, Dugdale said it's part of the anti-union playbook.
"It's step one in the traditional union-busting campaign," he said, adding that one of the next steps will be for Waterford to begin intimidating employees in advance of the union vote. "It's outrageous."
Wolman said that "our most important assets are our employees" and that his company would not interfere with its workers' wishes to organize.
Waterford's filing comes just four days before planned union rallies in front of the hotel and convention center in hopes of influencing convention organizers to relocate. The state's Democratic Party has scheduled its convention at the center for May 20, but is looking for backup sites to avoid having to cross a picket line.
Also in play is a dispute between Waterford and the city.
The city has argued that Waterford must sign a "labor peace" agreement with the union or risk losing a tax-fixing agreement worth anywhere from $15 million to $25 million. The city has told Waterford that it has until April 28 to resolve the issue before it begins canceling the tax agreement, city officials said.
But Waterford's attorneys argue that the city ordinances linking "labor peace" to city dollars applied to the construction and development phase of the Adriaen's Landing project, not to the operations phase.
In a letter to the city, Waterford's attorneys say the hotel will "pursue all appropriate legal remedies against the City for any harm caused by the City's continued efforts to enforce an interpretation of the Ordinance that has no legal basis.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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