“Dear Washington Lobbyist,” the email began.
“Your clients should know that it may be difficult to garner participation from Democrats at any events at the Hyatt at Olive 8 or the Grand Hyatt Seattle, where workers have called for a boycott. Please advise your clients to book events elsewhere.” [Emphasis in original]
The May 20 email from Unite Here Local 8, the local hospitality workers’ union, was sent to all registered Washington lobbyists and marked an escalation of the union’s months-long dispute with two Seattle Hyatt locations.
Unite Here and Hyatt are no strangers to conflict, but the dispute in Seattle highlights a fascinating mix of modern labor issues, such as the development of the corporate campaign and the card-check process for union recognition. The boycott is also notable for the endorsement of prominent state Democrats, many of whom are tacitly sanctioning union organizing techniques that can be less than democratic.
Prominently featured in the email were the members of the “community” supporting the boycott:
The Washington State Democratic Party and King County Democrats have endorsed the boycott, along with Washington Insurance Commissioner Mike Kriedler, twenty-one state legislators [all Democrats], the Washington and King County Labor Councils, and the Washington State Association for Justice.
Unite Here’s Levi Pine concluded his warning with some friendly advice for Washington lobbyists:
As the steward of your clients’ reputation, it would be diligent to ensure that your clients have all necessary information to protect their stature in the political world. Please advise within five business days if you are willing to inform your clients about the risk of having events at the boycotted Seattle Hyatts. [Emphasis in original]
Nice trade association you have there. It’d be a shame if something were to happen to it.
Precisely five business days later, Mr. Pine diligently proffered the promised reminder. The second email read much the same as the first, but concluded by threatening, “If you do not respond, we may be forced to inform your clients directly about the risks of contracting with boycotted hotels.” [Emphasis in original]
So why exactly is Unite Here Local 8 so upset at Seattle Hyatts that it warrants sending threatening emails to all 900-plus state lobbyists? The effort bears all the hallmarks of a union corporate campaign, loosely defined as “a type of union organizing strategy that uses an arsenal of legal, political, and public relations attacks to wear down a company’s resistance to unionization.”
Back in August 2013, the union launched a boycott of the two union-free hotels. Unsurprisingly, labor activists allege poor treatment of hotel employees, while management contends “employees ‘are being treated fairly’ and haven’t unionized because they are paid as well or better than workers at Seattle’s few unionized hotels.”
Still, it is telling that activists are not calling for an end to the alleged mistreatment per se, but for the unionization of the hotels.
As reported by Jim Brunner at The Seattle Times,
Activists said [hotel owner Richard] Hedreen has refused to abide by a pact negotiated between the national hotel-worker union and the Hyatt Corp. that provides a “fair process” for employees to decide whether they want to unionize.
“Fair process” is pretty ambiguous language, but implies that workers want to unionize and are being prevented from doing so by management. For its part, management claims “the company has abided by the Hyatt agreement and by federal labor laws that protect union organizing rights.”
Under current federal law, the National Labor Relations Board will conduct a secret-ballot vote on unionization if it receives a petition signed by at least 30 percent of employees asking for one. A simple majority will determine whether or not the workplace will unionize. Though employers may seek to educate employees about the perceived drawbacks of unionization, there is no indication that Hedreen is illegally preventing an NLRB election process from taking place.
But the “fair process” the union is referring to is not an NLRB election. Back in July 2013, Unite Here and the Hyatt Hotels Corp. reached an agreement to end the union’s nationwide boycott of the Hyatt brand. Part of Unite Here’s vaguely worded press release noted that, “A key provision of the agreement establishes a fair process, which includes a mechanism for employees at a number of Hyatt hotels to vote on whether they wish to be represented by UNITE HERE.”
Writing for labor-aligned publication In These Times, Bruce Vail dug into the details of the agreement. Citing Unite Here President Donald Taylor, Vail explains:
The agreement is aimed at ending the union’s ‘Hyatt Hurts’ global boycott campaign by settling outstanding labor contract issues at nine broadly scattered hotels [in Chicago, L.A., San Francisco and Honolulu] and creating a path forward for new union organizing efforts at a select number of the company’s non-union facilities.”
The “path forward” provided for non-NLRB unionization elections to be held at select Hyatt locations. Management preferred an NLRB-certified election, while the union preferred the card-check process. This is where things get a little complicated.
In order to avoid a secret-ballot NLRB election, unions will typically mount a corporate campaign to harass, embarrass and intimidate employers into signing a “neutrality agreement.” The details of each agreement vary, but they typically include three demands:
A gag order to prevent the employer from talking to its employees about unionization and allowing the union access to the employer’s property; giving over employee personal data, including private contact information, to aid the union in recruitment; and taking away the secret ballot from employees.
Instead of a secret ballot election, neutrality agreements will often authorize the card check process. Armed with employees’ personal contact information and a guarantee that the employer won’t stand in the way, union organizers can confront workers both at work and at home and attempt to intimidate, harass or mislead them into signing a card. Once it obtains signed cards from 50 percent plus one employees, the union turns them into the NLRB and is certified as the exclusive bargaining representative for all employees in the workplace.
Both the Freedom Foundation and national media outlets have documented how card check robs workers of their voice and allows them to be bullied by union organizers.
In this case, it appears Unite Here and Hyatt reached some middle ground that avoided both an NLRB election and card check.
But does the compromise reached in the national agreement apply to the Hyatt hotels being boycotted by Unite Here in Seattle? It does not appear to.
Again citing Unite Here President Donald Taylor, Vail writes that, “…the national agreement does not cover all of the Hyatt hotels where the union and the company have clashed, so observers can expect to see union activism continuing in some places.”
And in a follow-up piece last September, Vail noted that, although the agreement failed to prevent labor unrest in Seattle, Unite Here spokesperson Annmarie Strassel claimed, “…these hiccups do not signal a breakdown of the national agreement.”
Hyatt Senior Vice President Doug Patrick agreed:
The national agreement provides Hyatt associates with a process for voting on whether to be represented by the union in limited circumstances. The process can be implemented at hotels where Unite Here and Hyatt agree to use it. While the national agreement ends Unite Here’s global boycott against Hyatt, some union locals may continue their efforts to unionize Hyatt associates on a local level, such as in Seattle.
In other words, the dispute in Seattle appears to be outside the scope of the national agreement, meaning it is open season for Unite Here organizers to use whatever methods they wish to unionize the two hotels, presumably including card check if they can force Hedreen into a neutrality agreement. Cue the boycott, corporate campaign and intimidating lobbyist emails.
From here on, it is simply a waiting game to see which side gives in first. As long as Hedreen holds his ground, the hotels will probably remain union-free. But if Unite Here can make it painful enough to resist, it will probably win a neutrality agreement and unionize the hotels using card check.
One final thought that the dispute brings to mind: The union’s reliance on the support of Democratic Party officials is arguably emblematic of a broader local trend to unionize through government. Examples abound.
The Freedom Foundation recently obtained a candidate questionnaire currently being used by the United Auto Workers in Washington (which represents academic student workers at the U.W.). The very first question reads:
Employers routinely use intimidation, threats and coercion to deny workers their right to decide freely whether or not to organize a union and bargain collectively… Will you publicly support organizing drives in your district/state by:
a) Writing letters of support for the workers’ organizing efforts?
b) Attending community forums in support of the organizing efforts?
c) Helping to pass resolutions of support?
Once the Unite Here boycott in Seattle got under way, Democratic legislators dutifully responded, with Rep. Cindy Ryu stating, “We will do as asked: not to meet, eat, sleep, or speak at either property.”
Other examples include labor-backed Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn’s attempt to keep non-union Whole Foods out of Seattle, labor’s massive support for a measure in SeaTac last fall to encourage union organizing and efforts by the Teamsters to prevent rideshare companies from competing with Seattle’s taxi industry.
Unfortunately, while union officials desperate for membership might benefit from such efforts, consumers, employers and even workers are too often left to suffer the consequences.