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National Labor Battle Reaches City

Mayor's Summit On Convention Center Dispute To Focus On Organizing Rules

June 15, 2006
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

Were the union fight at the year-old Connecticut Convention Center and adjacent Marriott hotel about low pay or shoddy benefits, a summit meeting like the one Mayor Eddie A. Perez has called for today might be a simpler affair.

But while pay, perks, and workplace issues can be negotiated, it's tougher to bargain over principles. The debate turns not so much on the question of whether the more than 350 employees involved want to unionize, but rather, on the laws and rules that govern how they will decide.

It may sound odd - like saying football isn't about who wins the game, but who gets to write the rules before the game begins. Still, rules matter, a lot, and in the world of national labor politics, the rules are in play.

Those rules led to a hunger strike earlier this year by janitors at the University of Miami, and to an eight-year dispute between Yale-New Haven Hospital and some of its workers. The latter was eventually resolved when the union - as part of a deal to clear the way for a new $430 million cancer center - won the right to hold an election under favorable rules.

Now, Hartford is at the forefront of the same battle, as a dispute over the rules is starting to chase away the very business that the convention center was built to attract.

Following a union boycott call from Unite Here! and the Service Employees International Union, the United Church of Christ moved its 2007 national synod to the decades-old Civic Center; the state Democrats moved their 2006 state party convention to the Connecticut Expo Center; and the Connecticut Valley Girl Scout Council moved tonight's Woman of Merit corporate fundraiser to the nearby, unionized Hilton Hotel.

The dispute has also strained relations between Perez and one of the city's most influential developers, Waterford Group chief Len Wolman.

It was only a year ago that Perez and Wolman stood together celebrating the convention center's opening.

Now, though, the labor unrest has driven a wedge between the two men. The city says its ordinances mandate a "labor peace" agreement between the union and Wolman's company, Wolman disagrees, and the matter is in court.

Like the union, the mayor and Wolman disagree on the rules of the game.

Today's meeting to discuss the labor dispute was called by Perez and is scheduled for 10 a.m. at city hall. Perez invited representatives from the state agency that owns the convention center, from Waterford, and from the two unions seeking to organize workers. Waterford has said that, because the state asked it to attend, it will send a representative to discuss the situation at the state-owned convention center, but not at the Waterford-owned hotel.

The two unions seeking to organize workers at the convention center and hotel believe that the standard, secret-ballot elections on unionization as outlined under federal law often open the door to employer intimidation of workers, union boycotts, years of appeals, and unnecessary contention.

As part of a national push to grow their membership ranks, the unions are organizing not just workers but politicians, clergy, and community activists in an effort to pressure employers. Their objective both in Hartford and across the nation is to negotiate contracts that streamline the organizing process.

One popular strategy is a "card check" agreement, in which an employer typically pledges to recognize a union once 50 percent of the employees have signed a card declaring their support. In other cases, a secret-ballot election is run by an outside arbitrator with set guidelines. Often, employers and unions agree to waive their rights to appeal the employee decision.

But many employers and facility owners - including Waterford - argue that a process already exists in the federal National Labor Relations Act.

The act provides for a secret-ballot election, where votes on unionization are kept private. What's more, they argue that pre-negotiated agreements between management and unions seeking to organize workers would rob the workers of their rights to freely organize with the union of their choice.

Those are the issues from 30,000 feet. On the ground, both those who want to hear what a union has to offer, and those who don't, say they're getting squeezed.

Kerri Kane is a registered Democrat who comes from a family of union teachers. As a 20-year veteran of restaurants, country clubs, hotels, and catering outfits, he knows what it's like to be abused as a worker.

"In certain workplaces, I think the union is necessitated," said Kane, who, as an on-call server, brings home $3,000 a month after taxes. "This is not one of those workplaces."

It troubles her that she and her peers are caught in the middle of a fight between an employer and what she sees as the Democratic political machine.

"The tactics they've used over the last three months haven't done anything but create stress for us," she said of the union and the mayor. "All these things seem to be done to us, and nobody is asking us our opinion. And this is our livelihood."

On the other hand, a convention center worker who would not give a name for fear of retribution said the center is dominated by an anti-union sentiment. The worker isn't necessarily pro-union, but would like to hear the union perspective, make a decision, and continue working without external pressure.

"I want to be able to hear from both sides without having, you know, the management of convention center just constantly telling us bad things [about the union]. That's what I want," the worker said. "A lot of the people there speak their mind that they don't want any of this going on. And I just feel that I can't speak on the other side of it."

Labor observers and academics say Hartford is in many ways a perfect battleground.

The convention center and hotel are subsidized facilities in a Democratic city with a Democratic, service-union-supporting mayor. And since the convention center is a creature of public policy driven more by its ability to spark a region than turn a profit, policy makers may be more apt to listen when the union comes calling than a private employer.

Also, the jobs at both facilities - housekeepers, janitors, banquet servers, and more - are 21st-century service-sector jobs, not susceptible to outsourcing.

And changes in the economy have led to a debate over the best way to organize workers.

Elaine Bernard, head of Harvard Law School's Labor and Worklife program, says that the National Labor Relations Act favors employers by allowing them to delay the process and influence union activity. "If our political system was as bad as this, we'd be a dictatorship. It's pretty awful" Bernard said.

One answer, she said, is for unions to go back to the time before the national labor laws existed and negotiate directly with employers and the community.

But others see those agreements as a way to cut a deal without the input of the employees.

"What is wrong with this entire blow-up scenario is the union is depending on a high-publicity campaign led by political allies instead of a grass-roots membership drive," said Jonathan Cutler, an associate professor of sociology at Wesleyan University

"The underbelly of the union's story is that they're proposing to have your future union stewards and your manager stand over your shoulder with a card that you're supposed to put your name to," he said. "That looks awfully coercive."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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