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Hartford, Owners Of Marriott Downtown Settle Longtime Labor Dispute

JEFFREY B. COHEN

February 27, 2009

It has been more than two years since labor disputes at the Hartford Marriott Downtown marked the hotel's opening, chasing away some business from it and the Connecticut Convention Center next door.

Wrapped up in the tussle was a legal fight between the city and the hotel's owner, the Waterford Group, over whether a city "living wage" ordinance applied. Waterford said it didn't. Mayor Eddie A. Perez insisted it did, and he threatened to revoke a 15-year tax deal worth an estimated $30 million. In May 2006, Perez filed suit.

This week, the city and Waterford agreed to a settlement. Waterford has agreed to remain neutral when it comes to efforts to organize hotel employees; the city has agreed that the living wage ordinance did not apply and said it would no longer try to enforce it.

Both parties declined to comment on the settlement. In a statement issued by Perez, Waterford's chairman, Len Wolman, said the agreement was in everyone's best interest.

In that statement, Perez touted what he called Waterford's "commitment" to "the rights of the employees of the Marriott Hotel."

To that end, the parties agreed to various "labor neutrality terms," including those that guarantee wage standards and pledge that Waterford won't interfere with union efforts to organize employees.

But Perez's statement doesn't mention that the city's 2000 tax agreement with Waterford signed before he was mayor has no reference to the living wage ordinance.

According to the settlement, the city shouldn't have executed the agreement without a living wage provision. But it did, and since it was approved by the city's attorneys, "Waterford reasonably could have concluded" that the ordinance did not apply to the operation of the hotel, the settlement says.

As a result, the city has agreed to stop trying to enforce the ordinance in connection with the hotel's operation and the original tax agreement.

Labor tensions bubbled over in the spring of 2006 as unions tried to organize employees at the hotel and the state-owned convention center. The dispute between the unions and the hotel wasn't about whether employees should organize but how they should do it. That disagreement led to a boycott that, among other things, miffed some state officials as it chased away business.

One prominent loss was the 2007 national convention of the United Church of Christ. Instead of meeting at the convention center, the church with state financial help decided to hold its meeting at the Civic Center, now the XL Center. Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama was one of the event's speakers.

On Thursday, the city would not say how much it spent in outside legal counsel to pursue the case.

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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