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Hospitality workers demand fair treatment

By Mike Andrew

Eight people were arrested in a sit-in outside the Space Needle’s 50th Anniversary celebration on April 21.

While the eight, who included Space Needle workers and union activists, blocked the Space Needle driveway, more than 100 supporters chanted “U-N-I-T-E! We want job security!”

Atop the Space Needle, Seattle’s elite celebrated the anniversary of the iconic monument, the symbol of the 1962 World’s Fair, and looked forward to another 50 years of an expanding tourist industry.

Each year the Space Needle attracts over a million visitors making it one of the top tourist destinations in the region. The Needle’s Sky City Restaurant is the most patronized in Seattle, with dinners costing as much as $60 a plate.

Among those arrested were Lynne Dodson, Secretary-Treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, and Erik Van Rossum, principal officer of UNITE HERE Local 8, the union that represents Space Needle workers.

Space Needle management has been negotiating with workers since May 2011. In February, workers rejected a so-called “last and final” proposal by management that failed to include job security provisions.

“I could be replaced any day with temporary workers making lower wages and no benefits,” said Space Needle server Sanjeet Thebe. “Living under this stress has not been good—for me and for my family.”

Workers have said they will not accept a new contract unless the employer pledges not to contract work to outside companies.

The Space Needle sit-in was the second action by hospitality workers in April.

On April 3, workers from the Hyatt at Olive 8 Hotel paid a visit to their management office to demand that management remain neutral in their efforts to organize a union.

The workers’ organizing committee was accompanied by 20 community supporters, including County Council President Larry Gossett, County Council member Joe McDermott, City Council member Nick Licata, and Port Commissioner Rob Holland.

PSARA President Robby Stern and other PSARA members were part of the delegation.

Mayor Mike McGinn sent Hyatt management a letter supporting the hotel workers’ demand for a fair process to move forward with organizing.

“I believe workers should have the right to decide whether to join a union, free of intimidation or improper interference,” McGinn wrote. “As this process moves forward, I am asking you to respect workers’ rights to freely choose whether to join a union.”

UNITE HERE 8 said the organizing drive at the Hyatt at Olive 8 was its first new grassroots unionization effort in many years. The Arctic Club Hotel was unionized in 2009 through a prior “card check” agreement with management.

“Card check” means that an employer agrees to recognize a union once a majority of the employees sign cards authorizing the union to represent them.

If an employer does not agree to remain neutral in the organizing drive and to accept card check, workers have a much harder time winning the right to unionize.

Hostile employers can and do resort to all sorts of tactics – compulsory anti-union meetings, one-on-one meetings to pressure employees, threats of being fired – to intimidate employees and try to prevent them from joining a union.

Although Hyatt at Olive 8 manager Michael Stephens promised the delegation that “of course we’ll remain neutral,” documents released by management the next day indicated they would not accept card check at the property. Organizers say that Stephens was involved in heavy-handed anti-union tactics when he managed the Hyatt property in Scottsdale, Arizona.

On April 18, Puget Sound SAGE released a new report titled “Our Pain. Their Gain: The hidden cost of profitability in Seattle’s downtown hotels.”

While Seattle’s hospitality industry is one of the cornerstones of the local economy, industry practices keep workers in poverty with low wages and sketchy health benefits that require public money to subsidize their health care costs, as well as their food and housing, the report reveals.

“We found that hotel workers, who are mostly people of color and family breadwinners, not only earn wages at poverty level,” said Howard Greenwich, research director for Puget Sound Sage and author of the report, “they endure pain and injury at higher rates than almost any other industry—some that may surprise you, such as construction or coal mining. Meanwhile, industry profits are rapidly growing.”

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