Open or closed?

Upcoming vote could determine whether Sacramento keeps its only major union hotel

Heath Langle is challenging whether the Sheraton on J Street remains a closed-shop union hotel.

Heath Langle is challenging whether the Sheraton on J Street remains a closed-shop union hotel.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Heath Langle is the archetypal cog in the machine.

A 33-year-old waiter at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in downtown Sacramento, Langle is tall, clean-cut and rail thin. He looks like the boy next door and acts like it too, working at the luxury hotel to put himself through law school while interning in Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s office.

He’s not exactly the kind of guy you’d expect to be a troublemaker, but he is.

The Sheraton has a closed-shop union, meaning that to work there, employees must pay union dues, whether they want to belong to the union or not. Langle is trying to open it up. In July, he gathered enough signatures within the hotel—he needed 75 out of about 250 employees—to have a special election in August to determine whether the workers have to belong to the union.

If Langle wins, workers at the Sheraton won’t have to pay dues, even though the union could stay in the hotel. If he loses, the Sheraton remains closed and dues are mandatory under the contract.

“I feel like I’ve sat in the back row most of my life and just kind of cruised along and not really gotten involved,” Langle said. “When this came along, I don’t know what it was, but something lit a fire under me.”

On the surface it would appear that Langle is simply taking on his union, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) Local 49. That’s easy enough to understand. Langle and some of his colleagues don’t want to pay union dues, while the union wants to maintain control of Sacramento’s newest, and some say nicest, downtown hotel.

Yet in reality, Langle is challenging the very existence of the union at the Sheraton—something that was pushed a long time ago, not by the workers or the union or even the hotel. Even more notably, he is challenging a dead man’s fondest desire.

When Sacramento took bids in the late 1990s from hotels that wanted to build at the coveted 12th & J Street site, which abuts the Sacramento Convention Center and is near the Capitol, the much-revered late mayor Joe Serna all but required bidders to ensure it would be a union hotel.

Serna, whose roots were in organized labor, wouldn’t even step into the downtown Hyatt Regency, where workers rejected a union in 1988. That negative vote ensured that there would be no downtown convention union hotel, which meant the city was out of the running for large Democratic and labor-oriented conferences.

So when the city put the plans for a new hotel out for bid, it was clear to some bidders that if they didn’t come with a pro-union package for Serna, they would be facing an uphill battle.

“The City Council never came out and directly said it had to be a union hotel, but everything they did indicated that it was all about the union issue,” said developer Tim Taylor of Potter-Taylor & Co., whose firm represented the Marriott Hotel chain in the bidding for the project.

Out of five proposals examined by the city, it came down to two bids—Tim Taylor’s Marriott bid and David Taylor’s Sheraton bid. Sheraton, of course, came out on top. Tim Taylor says it was the labor issue that tipped the scales.

“It was the check card issue,” Taylor said. “No one will say that politically, but I believe 100 percent that it was the thing that gave Sheraton a leg up.”

The check card issue is this: There are two ways that unions can hold elections. One way is a closed, secret ballot where workers vote in private on whether they want to form a union. The other way is voting by card, in which union members pass out cards to workers and if the majority of workers sign them, a union is formed. It’s generally considered easier to form unions in the latter form of election. And while Marriott wanted a closed ballot in Sacramento, Sheraton workers would vote by check card. The Sheraton group won the project.

When the hotel hired its workers in April of this year, the union had its check card vote. According to union officials, about 75 percent of the workers signed the cards. Langle was one of the 25 percent who didn’t. The card vote, while legal, seemed arbitrary to Langle, who then contacted the conservative National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation. Langle says he heard of the foundation through a story in the Sacramento Bee.

“I’m not opposed to the union,” Langle says. “But I have a strong belief that I should be able to choose whether or not I participate in union activities.”

On Langle’s behalf, the Right to Work foundation in July filed unfair labor charges against HERE and Local 49 with the National Labor Relations Board. The foundation is certainly no stranger to union disputes. The controversial nonprofit group has been at the forefront of the right-to-work movement across the country. They say that it shouldn’t be a condition of workers’ employment at union businesses to pay union dues. Currently, there are 21 right-to-work states, which ban closed-shop unions.

Of course, every worker in every state has Beck rights, which stem from a Supreme Court decision that held that no one has to be a member of a union if they don’t want to be. However, if it’s a closed-shop union in one of the 29 states that don’t have right-to-work laws, the worker who opts out of the union still has to pay union dues for collective bargaining that benefits him or her.

To hear labor leaders tell it, the foundation doesn’t have the best interests of workers at heart.

“These people are just a bunch of outsiders coming into Sacramento who are funded by fat cat corporations trying to make life miserable for working men and women,” says Bill Camp, the executive secretary of the Sacramento Central Labor Council. “What (Langle) is trying to say in this election is we can all have a free lunch.”

Camp said that he expects the workers at the Sheraton to ultimately reject Langle’s bid to open the hotel up to workers who don’t want to pay union dues. But if the workers side with Langle, Camp says there is a chance that it could drive the union out of the hotel, which could in turn drive convention business out of Sacramento.

“If they vote with him, then we’ll get the message and he’ll be driving people out,” Camp says. “I wouldn’t go there to eat.”

According to Langle, that’s not his intention. He insists that he simply wants the choice to pay dues or not. While that makes the election seem so simple—and for Langle it may be—the larger economic and political implications make whatever happens in the vote an important point in Sacramento union politics. The cog in the machine might just jam the whole thing up.

“I think Local 49 is used to people not questioning what they are offering,” Langle says. “I’m almost positive they had no idea that someone like me was going to come along and do something like this.”