Hard bargaining

Hotel workers wield boycott threat in Sheraton labor dispute

Marco Hernandez said his union will take a bite out of holiday hotel business if the Sheraton doesn’t deal.

Marco Hernandez said his union will take a bite out of holiday hotel business if the Sheraton doesn’t deal.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Union workers of the downtown Sheraton Grand hotel told management this month: Pay up, or you’ll have a lot of vacancies for the holidays.

The union’s authorization to boycott the downtown Sheraton hotel was announced at the Sacramento City Council meeting on November 9. Workers of the hotel and their supporters told the council that they have no immediate plans to enforce the boycott. However, they said they will not hesitate to do so if the hotel management does not cut a deal soon in their ongoing contract negotiations.

If a boycott were called, every organization within the union’s network would be alerted not to patronize the Sheraton. That could mean no teacher’s conventions, fireman-training seminars or any other union-based patronage of the hotel would occur during the boycott period. The workers hope that a boycott of that magnitude would carry a significant financial bite as the travel-heavy holiday season approaches.

“If that’s what it takes to win it, then we will call it,” said Marco Hernandez, a server at the hotel who makes $7.05 per hour. “We can call all our union companies that bring business to us, like teachers, firefighters, aid workers and all those democrats. They don’t want to cross the picket lines.”

The two sides have been negotiating since early June. Unite Here Local 49, the union that represents Sacramento hotel workers, has demanded lighter workloads and more affordable health care.

“The workers made clear by authorizing the boycott last week that they are prepared to takes the steps necessary to win a fair contract,” said Josh Eidelson, spokesperson for the Unite Here union. “Right now employees of the Sheraton are working multiple jobs to pay the bills, are putting their kids on Healthy Families [state-subsidized insurance] and are ignoring doctor’s advice by staying on the job.”

The union is hoping the city, which has a significant financial interest in the Sheraton, will use whatever leverage it has to bring about a favorable settlement.

The city of Sacramento owns the Sheraton property, which it purchased in 1996 through a financial entity called the Sacramento Hotel Corporation. Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, Inc., which own other hotel franchises like St. Regis and Westin, are managing the hotel under the Sheraton brand. Although the city may not have direct authority over the hotel’s day-to-day operations, labor advocates feel the city could place informal pressure on the managing entity that oversees its $59 million property.

“The city ought to be concerned as to its investment,” said Grantland Johnson, director of community economic development for the Sacramento Central Labor Council. Johnson contends that the union demands of basic living wages and minimum health care are not unreasonable and should be met by hotel management. The economic loss of a boycott would wipe out any savings the Sheraton would make by not cutting a deal. This would needlessly imperil city revenue, Johnson explained.

“There’s no reason the public’s investment should be jeopardized,” Johnson said. “It’s a penny-wise and a pound foolish.”

The city council would like to see a quick resolution to the dispute. However, they also don’t want to endanger their relationship with the Sheraton’s managing company.

“I never like seeing unfair working conditions,” said Lauren Hammond, Sacramento city council member. “That took us a lot of time to get Sheraton Grand. And because of its existence, our community is doing much better because we have the room space to book larger conventions. So, of course, a boycott would not be good for the city.”

Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo said she personally would call the hotel’s general manager, Gunter Stannius, to discuss the issue.

Stannius, however, said the hotel pays its workers the highest wages in the industry for the area and has maintained good-faith negotiations with the union.

“We already pay the highest wages in town—more than any other city hotel—under our current contract,” said Stannius.

Stannius added that the management and the Union have a close working relationship and that the boycott threat may be pregame posturing before the next round of negotiations, scheduled for November 21.

If the Sheraton’s wages are superior, that’s only because the other hotels in the area are not paying their employees fairly either, said Hernandez.

“As soon as we are done with this contract, we have another four contracts coming up,” said Hernandez in reference to the area’s Hilton, Holiday Inn, Clarion and Radisson hotels.

“Those hotels need a lot, a lot, a lot of help because they are in a worse situation than we are. But first we are going to get ours and then we go there.” If the union were to secure a victory against the Sheraton, it could be used as leverage in the upcoming negations with the other Sacramento hotels.

The hotel negations have attracted the attention of local labor and civil-rights activists.

“It’s amazing to see all these workers working together, encouraging each other,” said Olga Trevizo, secretary for the Sacramento chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens. Trevizo said LULAC is backing the hotel workers and is prepared to support them through the long haul.

Both sides, and the city, hope that it does not come to a boycott or strike. Stannius told SN&R that he feels the next negotiating meeting will produce “positive results,” if not an outright settlement.

The union claims their demands are very reasonable and that the hotel management has been dragging its feet for far too long. Representatives say a boycott authorization was necessary to show the management and the city it means business—or lack of business.

“We already know what we want. The city council knows what we want. The Starwood knows what we want, so why keep playing dumb?” asked Hernandez. “It’s not like we’re asking for a lot.”