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Hotel Union President Seeks Better Coordination With Five-Year Plan

Labor: John Wilhelm hopes to win over major employers by offering work force training.

July 18, 2001|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The president of the hotel workers union on Tuesday called for more coordination between the hundreds of locals that make up the organization in an effort to gain clout in an industry dominated by a few multinational corporations.

John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union, offered a five-year plan at the union's annual convention in Los Angeles to organize the international chains, including Hilton Hotels Corp. and Marriott International Inc.

"We all work for the same companies now," he said to more than 400 delegates at the Century Plaza Hotel. "They plan nationally and globally. We don't. And we pay the price. . . . Our major structural challenge will be to knit together our local unions without losing the value of local autonomy."

Wilhelm, a Yale-educated labor organizer who was elected to a second five-year term this week, proposed setting minimum standards for all hotel contracts and lining up contract expiration dates across the country to give union negotiators more leverage. He also announced a monthly dues increase totaling $5 over the next five years, half of which would establish a national strike and defense fund.

The union, which represents workers in the U.S. and Canada, is among the most active in terms of organizing, but it faces tough obstacles. Membership and density--the share of the work force belonging to a union--have plunged in the last three decades in the hotel and restaurant industry, as they have in the labor movement as a whole.

The union has about 250,000 members--compared with 459,000 in 1971--and represents just 11% of all hotel workers in the United States. And in the last five years, union density has dipped slightly at major hotel chains.

Marriott, with 7% of its work force in the union, is among the least organized. The Hilton chain was 62% union in 1998 but dropped to 24% after its acquisition of nonunion Promus Hotels Corp.

Hilton's posture toward the union recently has become more combative, Wilhelm said, requiring a "united, union-wide approach." However, Hilton spokeswoman Kathy Shepard said the hotel has a cooperative relationship with the union "and intends to continue that relationship with the maintenance and negotiation of existing and new collective bargaining agreements."

Wilhelm said the union hopes to win the cooperation of big employers by offering work force training programs and partnering with business groups on issues such as immigration reform. But it will fight uncooperative employers aggressively, he said.

As part of the union's restructuring, six national vice presidents were named to coordinate union-wide efforts, such as campaigns at hotels, airports and casinos. Among the vice presidents is Maria Elena Durazo, president of Local 11 in Los Angeles, who will coordinate the union's strategy on immigration reform.

Wilhelm said the crux of the union's survival is in organizing non-gaming hotels. The service sector is growing rapidly and could provide stable, middle-class jobs, just as manufacturing did a generation ago, he said.

"The global hospitality industry is enormously profitable," Wilhelm said. "That's a good thing. It means there's enough to share."

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