June 3, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer
The United Church of Christ will keep its 2007 national convention in Hartford, but it won't be held at the year-old Connecticut Convention Center as all had hoped.
Instead, following a last-minute intervention by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, the church will hold its event at the decades-old Civic Center, keeping its people, and their money, in Hartford.
"They told me that the governor wants very much to make this work, and that they will be taking care of the $100,000 fee for the Civic Center," said Edith A. Guffey, associate general minister of the United Church of Christ. "It's a very generous assistance, and we're very appreciative of it."
The governor's office declined to comment Friday, as did other parties to the talks.
Speaking from her office in Ohio, Guffey said that the church's Connecticut members have long been working toward the 2007 event, which could bring between $5 million and $10 million to the city. But her organization refused to hold an event at the convention center, because of a boycott requested by a labor union.
The labor issue in question has to do with how to best organize workers at the convention center and its adjacent Marriott hotel.
Unite Here!, the union seeking to organize convention center and hotel employees, contends that federal labor laws do not adequately protect workers who want to organize. It wants the Waterford Group, the operators of the convention center and hotel, to sign a "labor peace" agreement that would ensure greater protections for the workers during an organizing campaign in exchange for a promise from the union that it would not picket, boycott or protest.
Waterford contends that it needs only to abide by the National Labor Relations Act and is asking federal labor officials to hold an employee vote on whether to unionize.
Meanwhile, as the church issue was resolved, Mayor Eddie A. Perez tried to open a diplomatic door toward labor peace Friday by inviting the state, the unions, and the operators of the convention center and hotel to a Monday meeting.
But he didn't get the response he wanted.
Perez proposed two meetings Monday to deal with the labor situation. The summit was to be mediated by former labor Commissioner Shaun B. Cashman. Union officials said they would come but Perez was put off by the state and the Waterford Group.
The head of the state Capital City Economic Development Authority said that Monday is no good, but his staff would be in touch. Len Wolman, of Waterford, said he'd go to a meeting, but only if Perez assures him that the union boycott will be withdrawn in advance and assures him that the employees will get to vote on whether to unionize.
In an interview, Wolman said such a gathering was unnecessary as long as all parties agreed to follow the federal labor law. "The process is in place already, which is the law that's been in place for over 70 years," he said. "Why don't we stick to the law?"
Antony Dugdale, a spokesman for Unite Here!, said Wolman's position was disappointing. "There are two paths here. There's labor peace and there's labor war; there's the path of conflict, and there's the path of peace," Dugdale said. "I absolutely think the path of peace is much better for Hartford, much better for the convention center, and much better for everybody."
Perez's chief of staff, Matt Hennessy, said the lack of interest in a meeting was disappointing.
"It maintains the status quo until there's pressure to have the parties come to the table," Hennessy said
But while the larger issue of labor unrest remains unresolved, city convention backers can at least rest easily that the church convention is not fleeing the city.
"We've always wanted to stay in Hartford," Guffey said, who still has to visit the Civic Center. "So, barring any unforeseen circumstances with the building ... we look forward to being in Hartford."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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