May 24, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
The United Church of Christ will move its 2007 national convention out of Hartford if the dispute between labor unions and the operators of the Connecticut Convention Center is not resolved by June 6, and the organization has asked the governor to intervene.
In a letter to Gov. M. Jodi Rell Monday, the organization - an umbrella group of Congregational churches - said that it will soon be forced to relocate its 8,000- to 10,000-person event scheduled for June 2007. Organizers say the event would use 18 area hotels for a week and could bring $10 million in economic benefit to the state. If the convention were to move, organizers say, it would be to a venue outside of Connecticut.
"In the event of a just and significant labor dispute, which we currently find this to be, we will not violate boycotts or cross picket lines," the organization said in its letter to Rell. "We are quickly approaching a time when we must make a decision to move our meeting to another city."
"We're not threatening to move; we will move if this issue is not resolved," Edith Guffey, associate general minister of the church, said in an interview. "This is far from convenient for us, but it's an issue of who we are, what we support, and convenience isn't the issue."
A Rell spokesman said she could not comment because she had not yet reviewed the letter. But Michael Cicchetti, assistant director of the state's quasi-public Capital City Economic Development Authority, said that his organization had recently facilitated a meeting between the union and the convention center's operators, the Waterford Group, and was surprised by the church's letter.
"We thought those discussions were ongoing," Cicchetti said, adding that a labor dispute at the outset of the convention center's operation "does not help Hartford."
The issue is a dispute between Waterford, which operates the adjacent Marriott hotel as well as the convention center, and Unite Here!, a labor union seeking to represent workers at both facilities.
The union contends that federal labor laws don't adequately protect workers who want to organize. Unite Here! wants Waterford to sign a "labor peace" agreement that would set ground rules for an organizing campaign that go beyond the existing laws. Those ground rules would allow the union to proceed with an organizing campaign free of management interference. In return, the union would pledge not to protest, picket, or boycott.
Waterford contends that it needs only to abide by the National Labor Relations Act, and the company is asking federal labor officials to conduct an election in which workers would decide on forming a union. The regional director of the National Labor Relations Board has rejected the request, but Waterford is appealing the decision.
Meanwhile, Waterford's decision to not sign the "labor peace" agreement has also brought about a dispute with the city, which argues that local ordinances require such an agreement for the hotel since it was built, in part, with city money. Officials at Waterford say they are under no such requirement.
Last week, the city filed suit to pave the way for its next action: the revocation of an estimated $30 million in tax benefits to Waterford.
On Tuesday, representatives from the union, the city, and Waterford indicated that no real progress toward a solution had been made.
In the letter to Rell, the Rev. John H. Thomas, the church's general minister and president, said his organization's plans to come to Connecticut are now in "great jeopardy due to the refusal of the Waterford Group to honor its commitments and enter into good faith negotiation of a labor peace agreement."
Thomas also noted that breaking the contracts with the hotel and the convention center would cost his organization significant financial penalties. He added that the $337,000 price tag to run the event at the Civic Center was beyond his price range, and said that "no other cities in Connecticut can handle our meeting."
"I write to ask you to do all that you can to move the parties toward the negotiating table," Thomas said.
H. Scott Phelps, director of the Greater Hartford Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the church was the first "citywide" event to sign with the convention center, and did so in 2003.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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