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Hotel strike likely in Puerto Rico

NYHTC - November 22, 2009 Share/Save/Bookmark


Good Start, Bad End

The latest round of contract negotiations between Hilton and Local 610, which lasted three days, started off well, but ended badly.

The first two sessions, held on Wednesday and Thursday, November 11 and 12, were productive. They began by revisiting the union's economic proposal, which had been put on hold temporarily while the union waited for quotes from insurance companies for an improved health plan for employees of the Condado Plaza and El San Juan Hotel and Casino. After receiving an unanticipated and highly expensive quote, union Negotiating Committee members agreed on a revised version of the union's original economic proposal. The revised proposal would spread out the up-front cost to management over the course of a 5-year contract, while still achieving the union's central goals of improving medical benefits, equalizing wages, and increasing employees' long-stagnant wages. Negotiator Peter Ward made this recommendation to the Negotiating Committee: "With the actual numbers back from [the insurance company], our original proposal looks a lot more expensive; I think we should show that we are reasonable, and give Hilton a revised proposal."

Ward handed the proposal to Hilton's negotiators on Wednesday and told them, "We are not so naive to think that you can respond to this proposal right now without going back to your superiors, the ones who actually have authority."

Hilton negotiators said they needed to take the rest of the day to discuss the new proposal with top executives. The union assigned attorney Rich Maroko, Local 6 consultant Brian Lysell, and John Boardman, Local 25 leader, to be available to Hilton to answer any questions company executives had about the union's numbers. After Hilton left, the union Negotiating Committee held a meeting, open to the members, through the remainder of the afternoon to discuss, draft, and approve outstanding contract proposals.

Agreement on Important Language Improvements

Upon arriving the next day, Hilton's negotiators, attorneys Desmond Massey and Rick Delello, quickly agreed to a number of the union's important contract language proposals. These included the following: a provision guaranteeing employees 5 days notice of layoff; another banning the practice of mandatory employee drug testing of employees; and a greatly improved (from the point of view of the workers) management's rights clause. Additionally, management agreed to union proposals for the El San Juan Casino on seating for cage cashiers, protection against disciplinary action for bill marking, and a proposal for a 7-minute grace period for all casino employees. After a few hours of negotiating, the two Hilton negotiators left, citing an important conference call they needed to attend to discuss the union's economic proposal with company executives. Interestingly, Hilton was only represented by Massey and Delello at the Thursday session. None of the Human Resources Managers were present.

Hilton's Insulting Economic Proposal

On Friday, the final day of negotiations, Hilton chief negotiator Massey handed the union negotiators copies of the company's economic counter proposal. Noticing that the document was in English, Peter Ward asked Massey for the Spanish translation of the proposal. Massey, who had promised in previous negotiating sessions that the company would make sure that any proposals they submitted were translated into Spanish, quietly stated that he did not bring a translated version to the table. Ward angrily took Massey and Delello to task for this act of disrespect to the Union and its members.

"You are negotiating with over 1,000 of your employees and you are a guest in their country," he told them. He added, "We had an agreement you'd have your proposals translated into Spanish."

Mr. Ward informed them that the next time they came to the table with an untranslated proposal, the bargaining session would be cancelled on the spot.

While copies of the English proposal were being run off for the members and the document scanned and emailed to a translator, Ward asked for the company's calculations regarding the cost of the economic proposal. Hilton could not produce any calculations.

As the union negotiators examined the proposal, it became increasingly clear to them that Hilton had not made a serious offer. Its health care proposal was the most offensive element of the package. Hilton proposed to give El San Juan and Condado Plaza workers an inferior version of the plan that Caribe Hilton employees, and management personnel, enjoy, with little proposed improvement over existing benefits. John Boardman, President of Local 25, Washington, D.C.'s hotel workers' union, addressed the Hilton negotiators and pointed out that, "considering that Hilton's wage proposal is so low, employees would actually be losing more than the value of their raises to cover insurance premiums." Boardman stated, "You are asking your employees to open up their wallets and hand you their money."

Negotiating Committee Recommends Strike Authorization Vote

After a heated round of questioning about the specifics of Hilton's proposed health care coverage, Peter Ward sent Hilton negotiators out of the room and addressed the assembled Negotiating Committee members and Hilton employees.

Ward recommended that the union send management on their way and end the bargaining session. He said, "We can't legitimize this proposal and their failure to provide a translation or necessary calculations with a continued discussion or a counter proposal." He continued, "What we should do now is submit management's economic proposal to the membership with the recommendation that they vote ‘NO' on accepting Hilton's offer, and vote ‘YES' to authorize the leadership of the union to call a strike at the optimum time."

The room immediately erupted in loud cheers and applause. Members approached the microphone to offer their thoughts on a potential strike. Gregorio Calvente, bellman at the Condado Plaza said, "We've let these guys get away with this kind of behavior for too long." He added, "Health insurance and a reasonable wage increase is exactly why we're here, and if the hotels can't see that, then we should strike."

By the time Hilton negotiators were called back, the auditorium had filled up with room attendants who had come directly from the hotels. Management took their seats and Peter Ward explained to Hilton that the union would begin final strike preparations, including a strike authorization vote.

Ward stated, "If that's what you want, you got it," adding, "as far as we're concerned, we're done here."

He then told the company representatives: "The ball is in your court. If you ever come to the negotiating table again in such a disrespectful and unprepared manner, I can assure you the negotiating session won't last for more than 30 seconds. We're done talking to the messenger boys, we're done being disrespected. Listen good as you walk out, that's the noise you'll hear when we put up our picket lines in front of the hotels."

As management left, the crowd again erupted with anger and enthusiasm, horns blasting, and musical instruments playing.

A negotiating committee member commented as management left, "I think they really underestimated how smart we are and how organized we are, and now they're going to have to learn the hard way."

Related Issues: Hilton Hotels Corporation, Local 610 Contract Fight, Puerto Rico