A message to our members from Union President Peter Ward

July 4, 2011 8:00 PM

I would like to address some of the issues that have been raised as part of the recent events concerning the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case and one of our members employed at the Sofitel.

We recognize that Dominique Strauss-Kahn and this member of our Union are the only two people who know for certain what happened in the hotel's presidential suite that led to his arrest and to a surge of international news coverage. We chose to support our member. Just as Mr. Strauss-Kahn has great resources at his disposal to support him, our member has a right to know there are people on her side, including her friends and co-workers, and her Union.

As all of you know, news reports have accused this member of lying in an immigration matter and on a housing application and her tax forms, which, if true, makes her one of probably millions of people who have done the same things. She reportedly told other lies, and some press outlets have said even worse things about her. That doesn't mean these things are true. She is embroiled in an international press feeding frenzy, in which the truth may sometimes take a backseat to the desire to sell newspapers. Unless and until there is strong reason for this Union to do otherwise, she is entitled to our support.

Clearly, our Union has no control over most things associated with this case, including false press reports, alleged leaks, anonymous sources, and the international media flurry that has accompanied all this.

Nor do we have any control over a published report that implied this member is a prostitute brought into the Sofitel by our Union. As we went to press, the member had sued the publication that published this information, saying it knew or should have known that these things are not true.

For the record, our Union had absolutely nothing to do with the hiring of this member, according to not only our records but also the records of the Sofitel itself. As an example, the member's application for employment, which was provided to us by the hotel, indicates that she was referred to the Sofitel not by us but by the International Rescue Committee, a highly-respected organization that assists refugees. We should add that this week the general manager of the Sofitel confirmed this information. There is absolutely no record of this member having ever been employed at any other union hotel prior to her being hired by the Sofitel. She never registered at the Union's employment office. In fact, we have incontrovertible evidence that the Sofitel room attendant became a member of our Union only after she became employed at the hotel.

There's more. In December, 2010, long before this incident, the Union filed a grievance against the Sofitel and a number of other hotels because they had hired, over a period of years, too many outside applicants who, like this particular member, had no previous experience working in a unionized hotel. We provided all this information to the press, but it did not change what was published.

As you know, the anonymous source cited in the published report who claimed that Local 6 room attendants usually start their careers at "the motels at JFK," is completely wrong. Few of our members get their first union job outside of Manhattan, and the majority of them start to work in the industry in luxury midtown Manhattan hotels, where most of our members work.

There may continue to be much focus on the Union in this case. That's because in the weeks since this case started we have spoken publicly about our firm position that inappropriate language and actions by hotel guests are unacceptable. We have drawn attention to the need for greater safety for room attendants and we have called for greater training for management and all employees regarding sexual harassment. Furthermore, under the strong health and safety language we won in our last contract negotiation we have engaged the Hotel Association in talks to accomplish these goals. We have met with the Association twice on these issues and they have indicated to us that they recognize these matters need to be addressed. The incident at the Sofitel aside, there have been other recent events in hotels where guests have behaved inappropriately, including the Pierre Hotel, where the guest admitted in open court what he had done to one of our members and where he pleaded guilty to third degree sexual abuse. We should add that the Pierre Hotel agreed to enhanced training and the implementation of panic button devices for room attendants.

We did not call the media about any of this; instead the media called us. And we accepted their invitation and chose to speak out about these problems openly and honestly. So did many of our members, some of them on camera for television news crews, both domestic and foreign. We have no regrets about this, and neither should any of you. In fact, we salute the room attendants who had the courage to do these television interviews. They have performed a great service for all members.

At this particular time I don't think anyone knows how the Sofitel case is going to end up. But I do know that the Union will continue to strive to improve safety and to enhance education. We are determined to make sure room attendants and all our other members know this: you do not have to tolerate abusive language or behavior by guests and you do not have to fear reporting these incidents to management.

There's one other thing you should know. The outcome of the Sofitel incident, or the guilt or innocence of those involved, will not in any way change the Union's position on these matters.