Table of Contents


Working conditions before the first contract

The strike of 1912

The 1937 organizing committee

The Hotel Trades Council signs the first contract

The Story of the First Contract

The Hotel Trades Council

The Executive Board in session early in the history of the Hotel Trades Council. Clockwise from President Jay Rubin are David Herman, administrative director of the Council, board members Patrick Kelly, Michael Obermeier, Roger Blair, Peter Crescenti, Treasurer Thomas Burke, Vice President Frank J. Shanley, Sidney Pudell and Secretary Peter Moroney.

The Hotel Trades Council (now the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council) was the successful result. Its formation in February 1938 was a decisive step in the struggle of hotel workers for dignity and a better life, paving the way for the winning of the first citywide wage-hour agreement 11 months later.

A unique venture that has won a place in the history of the American labor movement, the Hotel Trades Council added an industrial union set-up to the craft unionism of the locals. The local unions kept their separate identities and important functions, but the Hotel Trades Council became the central organizing, bargaining and contracting agency for all the hotel workers.

What it meant, in short, was that all hotel workers faced the future hand in hand.

Many factors and persons contributed to the historic achievement of unity. But an indispensable ingredient was the rise of leaders who were understanding, resourceful and persevering. Jay Rubin's key role in the persistent struggle to overcome all difficulties is indicated by his top post in the 1937 organizing committee, and by the fact that he was elected first president of the Hotel Trades Council.

The creation of the Hotel Trades Council both spurred organizing efforts and persuaded many hotel employers that unionism had come to the New York City hotel industry to stay. A month later, on March 23, 1938, the Hotel Association signed what is known as the Status Quo Agreement. This recognized the Hotel Trades Council as the union of hotel workers and was an essential step to the winning of the first contract.

The next months were marked by furious activity, as organizers and volunteers tackled one hotel after another, gaining many victories but suffering some setbacks too. In rapid succession, the Pennsylvania (now Statler-Hilton), New Yorker, McAlpin, Commodore and many other big hotels were organized and the Hotel Trades Council certified as collective bargaining agent. By the end of 1938, over 50 hotels were solidly unionized.

Even after the first contract was signed some of the larger hotels held out and tried to resist the union. Here, in 1940, workers picket the Savoy-Plaza and protest management's refusal to recognize the union and sign the contract.


Negotiations for the first contract began. Some employers, still thinking that a return to the old non-union days was possible, would yield nothing and adopted stalling tactics. The workers responded at the McAlpin and some other hotels by protest actions that paralyzed services for hours.

But the majority of the hotel managements were ready to reach an agreement. They recognized that unionism was a growing force. They did not want to go through strikes such as had taken place in some of the restaurant chains. The 1939 World's Fair was coming up, and they looked to it to bring the hotels out of the long depression period of poor business. They wanted labor peace. And some of the far-sighted ones saw that unionism could help the industry too - that workers who enjoyed better pay, security and dignified treatment would give the fine service that is the main thing hotels have to sell.

Helpful in easing the difficulties in the way of a settlement were a number of outsiders, notably Father John P. Boland, chairman of the State Labor Relations Board.

The January 18, 1939 contract signing took place at the State Office Building, 80 Centre Street. It was enthusiastically hailed by many leaders in labor and in government, including Governor Herbert Lehman. "A great forward step in the history of labor relations in this city," Stanley M. Isaacs, President of the Borough of Manhattan, said.

The signing marked the close of the long era of failure – the decades of 'here-today-gone-tomorrow' unions and broken strikes. But of course it did not mean the end of problems and struggle.

One struggle began even as the contract was signed. Some hold-out employers hired an attorney and began a vain legal challenge of the right of the Hotel Association to sign an industry-wide contract. And these employers and some others kept up the fight in their hotels.

The contract provided that it would take effect in a given hotel only when the management of the hotel signed it. The union launched and pushed vigorously a drive to get the management to sign. The Pennsylvania, Commodore, St. Regis, Edison, Essex House, Croydon and New Yorker signed quickly, but others held out.

The stubborn ones were picketed, both by their own employees and by volunteer committees from hotels under contract. Flying squads distributed leaflets to the guests in the lobbies, dining rooms and bars, asking their cooperation. Some of the hold-out hotels gave in, and 62 hotels had signed the first contract by the end of 1939.

But it took years of further effort – including a bitter strike and long struggle at the Governor Clinton and such hard-fought campaigns as that which organized the Waldorf-Astoria – to make the New York City hotel industry virtually 100 percent covered by our contract.

Another fight quickly developed over the issue of racketeering. Building Service Employees Local 32-A had played a divisive and obstructionist role during and after the formation of the Hotel Trades Council. Rubin and other leaders suspected the local's officers of corruption, but worked hard to bring the local into the Council, both to assure unity and to give the other locals a check on its activities.


In 1939 and 1940 evidence mounted that these suspicions were correct – that the 32-A officers were only interested in pocketing members' dues and squeezing extortion money out of employers. A resolute struggle to end the hold of the racketeers on the building service workers was carried on. In 1940, hotel front service workers – doormen, bellmen, elevator operators – revolted and set up Local 144, from then on an affiliated local of the Hotel Trades Council. That same year 32-A President George Scalise was convicted of extortion.

Thus, within the four year period from 1937 to 1940, a successful organizing drive was carried out in New York City hotels, the problem of unity was solved through the establishment of the Hotel Trades Council, the breakthrough of a first city-wide contract was achieved, and the hold of racketeers on a segment of the industry was broken for good.

Local 6 Secretary-Treasurer Gertrude Lane, shortly before her death in 1953, addresses a membership meeting that filled Manhattan Center to overflowing. Just 14 years after the first contract was signed, almost every hotel worker in New York was a union member.

Reflecting on that achievement in 1964, Jay Rubin stressed that "it was not accomplished overnight or by sudden inspiration. It was the end result of many years of effort and of learning from experience – including the experience of courageous early strikers whose names we do not even know.

"The biggest lesson that had to be learned was that there must be craft unity if the hotels were to be organized and stay organized. The gradual welding of the crafts into the Hotel Trades Council was an historic accomplishment."

The January 18, 1939 contract signing was the Great Divide in the history of hotel workers. Behind, over and done with, were the failures. Ahead were problems and challenges without end, but the forces that won the first contract – the struggles of the workers that built the union and forged unity in our ranks – made possible the step-by-step progress that has brought us to where we are today.

Struggles under a union leadership that knew what was possible have added gains in every negotiations to those of the first contract. They dealt with a wide range of subjects, from wages to job security, from vacations and holidays to health and welfare. This is the union's proud chronicle of progress:


In 1968 members from all hotels and motels marched to Madison Square Garden's Felt Forum to make their voices heard in support of the union demand that the contract be re-opened and wages adjusted to the reality of soaring prices.

In 1962, the union was again called upon to demonstrate the unity and strength of its members when the employers tried to back down after agreeing to contract terms. Members, like those seen here at the Plaza, rallied at contract bringing the 35-hour week was signed.

President Jay Rubin, Hotel workers rally


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