The National Labor Relations Board's top attorney has found that nine upscale Los Angeles-area hotels acted illegally in declaring an impasse last July in their talks with the hotel workers' union, according to union and hotel officials.
The general counsel's decision to issue a complaint could be a strategic and financial blow to the hotels, said an NLRB official who spoke anonymously. For one thing, the hotels could be forced to refund hundreds of thousands of dollars collected from workers for health insurance, the official said.
Richard McCracken, attorney for Unite Here, which represents the hotel workers, said the complaint could give the union certain advantages, including the ability to call a strike without risking permanent job losses. And he said it could limit the options for the hotels as negotiations moved forward with Unite Here Local 11, which represents about 2,600 maids, bellmen and other employees of the nine hotels who have been without a contract for six months.
Maria Elena Durazo, the local's president, said it was "a great day, mostly because of what the workers have gone through. Now they see there is some justice in this struggle."
Fred Muir, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Hotel Employer's Council, downplayed the significance of the complaint, noting that the council could appeal to an administrative law judge and, eventually, to the entire NLRB board in a process that could take years. The hotels also have the option of negotiating a settlement with the NLRB.
"This thing is one hell of a long way from being a real decision," Muir said. Even if the general counsel's ruling is upheld, he contended, it would have no material effect on the hotels financially or strategically.
Attorneys for the union and the hotel council were notified of the decision Wednesday. Muir said members of the hotel council -- which represents the Millennium Biltmore, Westin Century Plaza and other properties -- hadn't yet met to discuss their response.
The decision by General Counsel Arthur F. Rosenfeld came out of the NLRB's Washington headquarters rather than a Los Angeles field office, underscoring its significance. It was also notable because so many union leaders view the NLRB as sympathetic to business interests. Rosenfeld was appointed by President Bush.
The counsel's office is the investigative and prosecutorial arm of the federal board, which is charged with overseeing union elections.
NLRB officials said publicly only that they were communicating with both parties.
An official familiar with the situation, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Rosenfeld rejected the hotels' argument that talks were at impasse because the union was insisting on a contract expiring in 2006. Rosenfeld reasoned that talks couldn't be at an impasse because both parties were continuing to discuss contract issues, the official said.
Under NLRB rules, when negotiations are at a bona fide impasse, an employer is allowed to impose conditions not included in the expired contract -- such as the $10-a-week health insurance premium the hotels began charging workers after July 1. A union representative said nearly 500 members lost their insurance as a result. The hotel council also unilaterally restricted union representatives' access to the hotels.
McCracken, the union attorney, agreed that the complaint could well be only the beginning of a lengthy litigation process. But whatever happens on that front, he said, the complaint has brought the NLRB actively into the negotiation process, which means the board must approve any final contract between the parties to be sure that the workers are fairly compensated.
Beyond that, McCracken said, the general counsel's decision gave the union credibility.
"Until now, the union's been saying one thing, the employers another thing," McCracken said. "This is the first time there's been a neutral, authoritative evaluation of the bargaining situation, and the conclusion is that the union's the one that's right."
But Muir had a different view: "I don't think that this call from the NLRB today will change the dynamics of the talks."
The union is trying to line up contracts across the country to expire at the same time, raising the possibility of a national strike. The Los Angeles hotels have said they will never agree to such a deal.