David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Has Marriott's Neutrality Agreement Covered Union-Busting?
by David Bacon

SAN FRANCISCO (9/19/98) --

"Will you shut off the camera for a minute, please?"

"It's ok if it keeps going."

"Will you shut off the camera for a minute, please, Scott?"

"Why can't you talk to us with the camera on?"

"Because I'd like you to turn it off. I'm asking you, making a reasonable request."

"This is protected, concerted, legal activity. We have a right to be here doing this."

Three times Donna Shepherd, human relations director for the downtown Marriott Hotel made the same request. And three times, workers in the hotel's employee cafeteria refused to back down. Finally, a stocky, dark-haired man in his thirties stood up and began to speak. Housekeepers, bellmen, waiters and kitchen workers all turned in their chairs, hurriedly downing their lunch as they watched.

"Hi everybody, we're going to start now," he announced. "My name is Ramon Guevara, and I work in the room service department. We're basically here today, myself and other organizing committee members, to inform you because you deserve to know the truth about the unfair labor practices being committed by Marriott management. If you're interested in hearing about this, sit at the tables in front of me. I have some charts I will be using during my talk. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask ... The National Labor Relations Board is now preparing a case against the Marriott about dozens and dozens of violations of the law. There are three major categories in which these violations occurred, the first of which is the illegal denial of wage increases."

As Guevara launched into his stinging critique, Shepherd decided she'd had enough. Salvaging what she could of her authority, she retreated from the lunchroom. And for the next ten minutes, Guevara gave a detailed explanation of why, eighteen years after the Marriott chain signed its original neutrality agreement, and nine years after its San Francisco flagship hotel actually opened, workers still have no union contract.

The downtown Marriott, whose glassy rounded facade has earned it the nickname of "the jukebox," is such a huge establishment that its 1000+ regular workers have four separate staggered lunchtimes. Guevara and his cohort of union supporters had to repeat their teach-in four times, back to back, to catch everyone who ate in the cafeteria that day.

The teach-in, held September 1, was intended do more than keep workers up-to-date on the union's progress. According to room server Amy Cavanaugh, who told Shepherd that the video camera wouldn't be turned off, "it was a very bold step. We were afraid at the start, but part of the purpose was to get rid of the fear. And people loved it, even though they were worried about what would happen."

The guerilla battle in the lunchroom is evidence of a much larger struggle inside the hotel, as workers assert their right to support the union openly in the face of obvious management hostility. That hostility has been so systematic and pervasive, the union says, that it has filed over 100 allegations of illegal conduct against Marriott with the National Labor Relations Board. Investigation of those charges has taken over a year, and 62 workers have given statements supporting the case. The board is rumored to be preparing to issue a massive complaint within weeks.

The charges outline an intense war in the workplace, intended to remove entirely the representation rights of Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 2, rights it took the union 15 years to win.

Marriott Corp. first proposed building the downtown hostelry in 1980, when development of the Yerba Buena center was still on the drawing boards. At the time, the project faced strong protests by community groups and unions over its planned destruction of downtown housing and businesses. To win city approval, Marriott was forced to reach an accommodation with opponents, out of which came an historic agreement with the union.

The company pledged it would hire community residents to work in the hotel, and that it would not oppose efforts by Local 2 to organize its employees. From a corporation with a national reputation for hostility towards unions, it was a major concession.

Construction took nine years, and in 1989 the hotel finally welcomed its first guests. Despite the agreement, however, it didn't welcome the union. Instead, Marriott spent the next six years battling Local 2 in court. "It took between 1989, when the hotel opened, and 1995 to get the hotel to put in writing the specific terms of the recognition process," says Local 2 president Mike Casey. "And they finally did it because they're so arrogant they never believed the workers would actually organize."

A procedure was drawn up, under which the hotel agreed not to campaign against the union, and to recognize it if an independent arbitrator found a majority of its employees had signed union cards. In late January of 1996 the union campaign began. And despite protestations of neutrality, the hotel held 22 separate mandatory employee meetings, in which it made clear its desire to remain union-free. Arbitrator John Kagel eventually found the hotel in violation of the agreement, and extended the time given the union for recruiting support.

The extension proved unnecessary. In August of 1996, the committee of union workers inside the Marriott felt strong enough to hand out union cards. In eight days, they rolled up a majority. Kagel certified the union's right to bargain, and negotiations started in late November.

The first half of the contract was nailed down in the following months, but then negotiations soured. Local 2 secretary-treasurer Kevin O'Connor says that "from day one, there was a real question whether the company would live with the city-wide standard the union has negotiated with other hotels. Our minimum and their maximum were not in the same ballpark."

One thorny issue was the hotel's desire for scheduling flexibility, refusing to guarantee workers two consecutive days off. Shepherd says that's no longer a problem, but the hotel still won't agree to the union's proposed work rules. "Have you seen the Local 2 contract?" she asks. "It's over 100 pages."

As bargaining grew more difficult, workers began signing petitions and forming delegations to management demanding progress. Then, last fall, an organized campaign surfaced to remove Local 2. Workers not in jobs not covered by bargaining -- engineers, front desk, clerical workers and others -- began wearing anti-union buttons, which quickly spread into the bargaining unit. In October and November, the hotel held department meetings to talk about the bargaining delays.

According to housekeeper Josephine Cruz Rivera, her department had a big meeting on November 14, attended by manager Peter Chenoworth and Shepherd. "She told us that we would get a raise if the union went away," Rivera remembers. "I told her that the union wasn't going away, and she shouldn't say that. She wanted us to fight among ourselves."

Shepherd says "I told people we couldn't raise wages for them until the contract was resolved. If someone wants to assume that it's resolved by the union going away, they can do it. We expect to get a contract."

Then a mysterious group appeared -- Associates for a United Marriott. Associates is the term the company uses for employees. On November 14 it held a reception in an office in the same building as Marriott's lawyer, Jim Paras of Morrison and Foerster. The following day, petitions began circulating in the hotel to decertify Local 2.

Shepherd denies any connection to the group or its petition. Any management connection to the effort would be a serious violation of federal labor law. But Paul Webb, a room server since the hotel opened, says that "I saw engineers [who are not covered by Local 2] walking through the hallways carrying petitions." One of them, he recalls, had a computer printout listing the people employed in each department with their qualifying hours.

He says Shepherd expressed support for petition circulators. "Every time we had department meetings," he remembers, "she'd mention signing the petition." In the meantime, both he and Guevara were confronted "almost daily" by anti-union employees.

Key to the decertification effort, the union charges, was the fact that Marriott actually gave it's non-bargaining unit employees a 4% raise in January of 1997, and held out the prospect of another in January of 1998. The cost of their medical benefits was also cut. "Management tried to create a feeling of futility," Guevara charges, "that bargaining would not benefit us, while they gave non-union raises. The message was, if you make the union go away, you can get these benefits too."

Shepherd admits the hotel raised non-bargaining unit wages by 4% in 97 and again in 98. "We also proposed in bargaining to raise wages, but the union wouldn't accept," she states. But the hotel refused to separate out the wage issue, and give its bargaining unit employees a raise while negotiations were going on. "We want to wait until the whole contract is finished," she says, "and then we'll make it retroactive."

The decertification petition was filed with the NLRB on December 30, with its supporters claiming the required 30% support of eligible employees. Decertification, however, is in legal limbo until the union charges of illegal management support for the effort are resolved.

Meanwhile, workers inside the hotel have stepped up pressure on management through cafeteria teach-ins and wearing buttons, Guevara says. In the boisterous picketlines which have surrounded the hotel entrances two and three times a week for the last few months, employees on break, in their waiter or housekeeper uniforms, have become a common sight. "We've stopped the decertification campaign dead in its tracks," he declares vehemently. "There's no way they're going to get the union out of here."

The Marriott fight is a key test of strength between the hotel union and the corporation, closely watched on a national level. A number of Marriott hotels have unions, but they were already in place when the corporation bought them. The jukebox campaign will mark the first time a union has successfully won a contract while the corporation owns and operates the hotel. Since Marriott has the goal of owning 2000 hotels by the year 2000, the stakes for the union are high.

Marriott has successfully fought off unions in the past by using a state-of-the-art "union avoidance" strategy. It was one of the first private corporations nationally to begin large-scale hiring of workfare employees, who stand to lose their benefit checks if they wind up in problems with hotel management. The chain has also implemented a peer review system, in which a worker can appeal a firing or written warning to a panel of three fellow workers and two supervisors. Shepherd says that under the system, implemented at the jukebox two years ago, the panels have reversed management decisions in about half of the 30 cases appealed, including 17 firings.

"We think this is a prophylactic system, designed to convince workers they don't need a union to get fair treatment," O'Connor says. "But if a hotel actually has to have a decertification campaign, it means the prophylactic system has already failed."

For the union, the campaign tests what has become one of its most common tools to gain contracts - the neutrality agreement. In Las Vegas, the largest hotel union local in the country uses such agreements frequently to organize the huge casinos. San Francisco's Sheraton-Palace had a neutrality pact in place when it recently reopened after 3 years of renovations.

But the Marriott campaign is the first attempt to enforce neutrality while a company wages an all-out campaign against it. Neutrality will be a key tactic in Local 2's drive to organize the city's six remaining non-union Class A hotels. Across the bay in Oakland, its sister union, Local 2850, wants to require such agreements as a condition for building new hotels downtown.

Success at the Marriott will provide a precedent for enforcing those agreements.

"Neutrality isn't without its problems," explains Casey. "But it gets us to bargaining faster. Even where an employer is committed to fighting the union for a long time, it still gives workers an advantage."

And it's been a long time at the Marriott -- 18 years. "The Marriott has to accept that if they want to run the hotel the way it's supposed to be run, they have to settle the contract," Guevara concludes. "There's no other option. We've had eight years without the union, and we didn't like it. We're going to get a contract. That's final."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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