Workers Pushing for Unions May Pay the Price 

COURTESY OF YKSIN VIA FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS
  • Courtesy of yksin via Flickr Creative Commons


When Indianapolis hotel workers and their supporters sought to support an anti-blacklisting ordinance this summer, one of the witnesses at a July 10 City-County Council hearing was Elvia Bahena. Through an interpreter, Bahena told the councilors that she had worked at Hospitality Staffing Solutions, HSS, for 10 years but had never received any benefits from the company. So, when the new J.W. Marriott hotel opened in early 2011, Bahena applied for a permanent job with the hotel.

"They (J.W. Marriott personnel) asked me, 'Where do you work now?' I said, 'I currently work at HSS.' And they said that 'we can't hire you directly for the hotel because you work for the agency.' They said I would have to quit my work at the agency for at least one year and then I could apply directly at the hotel," Bahena testified. "There is no way I could be without a job for one year. I have three children to take care of."Bahena decided instead to take a job at United Services Companies, another agency that provides temporary staffing for hotels.

Bahena's council testimony was delivered in front of industry representatives and broadcast on local cable television. Two weeks later, she says, she was fired from United Services. After union advocates and local council leaders alleged Bahena was fired in retaliation for her testimony, United Services issued a statement that Bahena was merely "unassigned" and cited unspecified performance issues. Bahena now works in an Indianapolis food processing plant for minimum wage. Her friends have held fundraisers to help her family pay for rent and food.

Bahena was not the first Indianapolis hotel worker to learn that supporting union efforts can be risky business.Longtime Westin doorman William Selm, a past Westin's employee of the year and winner of the prestigious ROSE Award for hospitality workers, had always been a favorite of the hotel's customers and management. As recently as 2005, Selm had been asked to speak at a Statehouse rally in support of $275 million in government funding for an expansion of the Indiana Convention Center. "They would often trot me out for causes like that, and I was fully in favor," Selm recalls. "I loved my job." Then, in late 2007, he joined the union effort. "Things began to unravel pretty quickly after that," he says.A few months after receiving the petition asking that the union-recognition process be started for its employees, the Westin terminated more than a dozen bellman positions, including Selm's. The Westin allowed the fired workers to re-apply for their jobs with a sub-contractor. Six months later, the Westin sub-contracted another 30-plus positions of workers in the hotel's Shula Steakhouse.

Selm decided to take a job with the subcontractor, Towne Park, and continued his Westin duties as senior doorman despite the company's policy of deducting a 40 percent take of all the tips guests added to their room bills in consideration of the services employees such as Selm provided. Then, in early 2009, Selm was told that the Westin wanted him removed because Selm had complained to a coworker about the Westin's subcontracting trend.Westin General Manager Dale McCarty acknowledged to The Indianapolis Star that he had told the subcontractor to transfer Selm, but would not disclose his reasons for the move. The Westin declined comment for this story.

U.S. labor laws provide little protection for workers who are victimized by employer retaliation. Federal law prohibits employers from firing workers for union activity. However, employers risk only the prospect of eventually having to pay back wages, minus any pay the worker may have earned in the interim, should they be found to have violated the law. It provides little disincentive for employers to crush a union through targeted firings, union supporters say, and National Labor Relations Board data shows that one in every five union advocates can expect to be fired for their union activity. "It is just like if I were to break into your house and take your TV, and the worst thing that could happen to me is that I may have to put it back," says Gordon Lafer, an associate professor at the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center. "When workers ask if they can be fired for advocating for a union, the fair answer has to be, 'Legally, no.But in reality, probably a few of you will be fired.' "

Union organizers say the lack of employee protection is part of a hostile political and legal environment for organized labor. Some believe the era was heralded in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan unapologetically fired 11,000 striking unionized air traffic controllers and imposed a lifetime ban on their rehire.Under current law and practice, there has been virtually no penalty for employers who refuse to bargain in good faith with unions representing their workers, leading to barely half of unionized workers actually agreeing to a contract with their employer even after their union was recognized by the National Labor Relations Board.

In February, Indiana became the 23rd state to adopt a "right to work" law, which prohibits union contracts that require non-union members to pay dues for representation. The Indiana legislation was fiercely resisted by labor advocates, who convened large and noisy demonstrations in the halls of the Statehouse. Democratic lawmakers staged a series of walkouts to protest the bill's progress.Many unions and their members responded to right to work and other unfavorable laws by mobilizing for the recent November elections, canvassing door-to-door and paying for advertisements supportingcandidates considered favorable to labor.

Compared to many other unions, Unite Here, the union representing hospitality workers, does not spend a great deal of its energy and money on election campaigns or national or state-level lobbying of politicians. The union's lead local organizer, Mike Biskar, says the 100-percent support from the Democratic councilors for the anti-blacklisting ordinance in the City-County Council was a tribute to the workers like Bahena and Selm who shared stories of their struggle with the community, not a product of campaign contributions or traditional lobbying. Biskar also notes that Unite Here has successfully organized workers at hotels in several states with "right to work" laws.

Ironically, the IUPUI food service workers approved their first-ever union contract (see, "We Deserve Better") the day that the Indiana General Assembly passed the right to work bill. Biskar says that similar organizing success will provide the best antidote to laws that disfavor workers. "We just need to look at the historical pattern," he says. "The New Deal and the Wagner Act (that protects the rights of workers to form unions) happened because workers were already organizing, not the other way around.

"When will labor laws improve and when will politicians stand up for workers? " he asks. "When workers are organized."

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