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By Jaclyn Diaz
UNITE HERE is fresh off of major contract wins in Las Vegas with Caesars Entertainment Corp. and MGM Resorts International.
The five-year deals negotiated for more than a dozen hotels along the Strip include the union’s strongest language achieved in collective bargaining so far. Employers should take notice, as the union says these agreements will serve as the new model for all of its future contracts in the hospitality industry. Nearly half of the union’s contracts at hotels are up in 2018.
The agreements with Caesars and MGM include provisions on sexual harassment, safety, immigration, and workplace automation. They require the hotels to provide housekeepers with panic buttons to protect from possible assaults, allow the union a say on automation, and give immigrant workers added job retention protections.
Whether the union can be successful in other cities depends on its bargaining power, Susan J. Schurman, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University, said. The union should expect pushback from employers on some of those issues.
“A high percentage of the labor force are organized in Las Vegas and they had a lot of leverage there. They had enough leverage in the Las Vegas labor market to essentially bring the casino industry to a halt,” she said. “In other areas, they may or may not have that kind of leverage.”
Dozens of Marriott International hotels are the next stop for UNITE HERE. The union is already in the middle of negotiations or preparing to begin bargaining this week for locations in Boston, Seattle, San Diego, and San Francisco.
In requests for comment on the issues to be raised by the union in negotiations, Marriott International said through a spokeswoman: “We have had longstanding and productive relationships with Unite Here in all of these cities. Marriott has always negotiated our collective bargaining agreements in good faith and will continue to do so.”
The union represents roughly 20,000 Marriott workers, and of those, over 12,000 Marriott workers will be negotiating their contracts this year. It also continues bargaining with 16 independent hotels in Las Vegas.
As the hospitality industry took a hit during the recession, so did union contracts. Now that the economy has improved, especially for hotels, the workers are owed higher wages and higher investment into more health and safety standards, UNITE HERE President D. Taylor said. Culinary Workers Union Local 226 and Bartenders Union Local 165 won a 3.7 percent annual wage increase in Vegas.
The industry is doing well, according to Bloomberg Intelligence’s midyear report on global lodging. North American hotel stocks gained in May, outperforming their Asian and European rivals. Hotel operators are looking to stay competitive against online travel agents and alternative lodging sites, such as AirbnB.
The hotel and restaurant industry is “notorious for sexual harassment,” Schurman said. “It’s just endemic in that industry.”
The panic buttons won in Vegas will be worn by housekeepers who enter a guest’s room alone every day. The buttons are traditionally silent and tooled with a GPS tracker so a security guard could quickly respond to an employee in trouble.
“The employers did not fight that, in fact they understand the significance of that” with regard to the #MeToo movement, Taylor said.
The union is also aiming to include language that could either ban guests accused of bad behavior from returning to complete their stay and that would protect workers from retaliation from management. There is a perception nationally that the union is bargaining just for panic buttons to stop assault, but those are meaningless if the attacker is allowed to continue to stay or to return, Rachel Gumpert, a union spokeswoman, said.
In light of #MeToo, employers won’t put up too much of a fight on that as they want to appear to be on the right side of the problem, Schurman said.
It’s an issue Marriott and the American Hotel and Lodging Association say they take seriously.
Marriott’s policies strictly prohibit harassment of any associate by any other employee, supervisor, or guest. “Making sure our associates are safe when they are doing their jobs and that they have a feeling of security and well-being is a top priority,” Marriott said in a statement.
Many hotels have already implemented best practices and technologies to their properties and continue to refine those policies, AHLA said.
Emerging technology, such as panic buttons, can be used for good. But more frequently, it’s a growing concern in hospitality, Taylor said. Automation has already hit casinos and hotels with self-service hotel check-in kiosks, room service delivery robots, and automated drink machines.
UNITE HERE is asking employers to consult with the union on technology that affects workers. For example, a Bloomberg Intelligence analysis finds hotels are trying to stay competitive by using technology for online and mobile booking.
“We’re not Luddites. We’re not against technology. That’s crazy,” Taylor said. “We want a real process where we are part of a conversation” about technology implementation.
It’s important to remain realistic, as employers must also respond to customer demand, Steven Swirsky, a management-side attorney with Epstein Becker & Green, said.
“There are certain jobs that are going to evolve, but we will always need people to do some things,” he said. “It’s an understandable concern, but we can’t hold back what customers and clients are looking for.”
Many of UNITE HERE’s members are enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the temporary protected status program. If their immigration status were to ever change, the contracts in Vegas say those workers can retain their jobs and keep the same level of seniority if they return within five years, Taylor said.
The union is also working to widely implement policies in which employers require Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who come to the workplace to have a warrant.
“We are going to be doubling down. It’s totally unacceptable for employers to allow ICE on location without a warrant,” Gumpert said. “We see union contracts as a stop gap for where the law fails workers.”
Swirsky said he’s already seen UNITE HERE achieve that in Southern California.
Employers are already in a sticky situation when it comes to immigration, Swirsky said. Management needs to ensure they are in compliance with their legal obligations while maintaining empathy and care for workers. But, with all of the attention the issue is getting, employers must also remember how their actions are perceived publicly.
“If you are public brand, outwardly to guests, you don’t want to look like you’re on the wrong side of the issues,” he said.
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