Hotel Unions Flex Their Muscles

As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense. That's the message attorney Jay Sumner has for lodging company executives and property owners who want to keep the increasingly aggressive hotel unions from organizing their employees.

“Unions don't organize employees, employers do,“ Sumner told a packed audience at last month's third annual Hospitality Law Conference in Houston. Stephen Barth, Lodging Hospitality contributing editor and founder of HospitalityLawyer.com, is conference chairman. “For employees, the issues at stake aren't wages, benefits or hours; they're fairness, dignity and respect. If you take care of their needs, employees won't want to organize.“

According to Sumner, a partner with Washington, DC-based Krupin O'Brien, the number-one way to protect your hotel from union organization is to improve communications with your workforce, both as a way to better satisfy your workers but also as a tool to gather intelligence about potential organizing efforts.

“While formal communications with employees is important, the day-to-day communications between employees and their direct supervisors is even more critical,“ he said. “As far as the worker on the line is concerned, his or her supervisor is the company.“

Sumner said unions have become more aggressive in recent years toward organizing hotels and other service industries. The catalyst in the hotel industry came with last year's creation of UNITE HERE, which was formed by the combination of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union and a former union of textile industry workers.

This 450,00-member super union, said Sumner, “is cunning and aggressive with very intelligent leadership.“ John Wilhelm, president of the union, is reportedly contemplating a race for president of the AFL-CIO. UNITE HERE spends 45 percent of its resources on organizing drives and uses sophisticated and aggressive research and negotiating strategies to get the job done, Sumner told the audience of hotel company counsels and others.

“The union's number-one agenda item is organizing,“ he said. “Its philosophy is ‘go union or go out of business’.“

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