When President Barack Obama spoke at the Westin last month, the downtown hotel's former doorman, William Selm, received a special invitation to attend. The irony wasn't lost on Selm: He'd been invited to hear the president speak about labor unions at a hotel where he'd been fired after discussing forming a labor union.
Selm also got to meet the president after his speech at the Democratic Party fund raiser. Obama had just finished a conversation with John Mellencamp and his wife, Elaine, and their two sons. He was about to board the elevator when an aide made introductions. Selm said that the president told him, "I've been reading about you. This is a raw deal you got."
They discussed unions being part of the solution rather than the problem. Before a photo was snapped of the two and before Obama finally did board the elevator, he told Selm, "You're in my corner."
That corner is getting crowded in Indianapolis, where a recent push to unionize three hotels has gained support and momentum through rallies, vigils and political backing. Workers are trying to organize the Hyatt Regency, Sheraton Indianapolis Hotel & Suites (Keystone at the Crossing) and the Westin.
If successful, they would be the only union hotels in Indianapolis, a city that bills itself as a convention, sports and vacation destination. Part of the city's successful 2012 Super Bowl bid was built on the expanding hospitality industry, and workers want to see the benefits of that branding.
"Indianapolis has changed its downtown more rapidly than other Midwestern cities," said Peter Seybold, associate professor of sociology at IUPUI and former director of Indiana University's Division of Labor Studies. "This focuses attention on growth, and the labor movement is taking a look at organizing these workers.
"To me, the timing makes complete sense," he said. "As hotel and service workers expand, so does the union drive. It's a really significant part of the workforce now."
In Indianapolis, that workforce still includes Selm, who now works at the downtown Sheraton. But he was able to get more hours and make more money at the Westin. There, Selm had worked as a server, bellman and valet when the doorman position opened. He tried out and got the job, which he held from February 1995 until last August.
"Until I got sacked," he explained. "It wasn't just a job. I really liked it. It was a good crew - funny, entertaining. Most showed an interest in what they were doing."
Selm and his wife Laura have four children; two are still in high school. (Editors note: One of Selm's children is Nick Selm, who occasionally writes about music for NUVO.) Some may consider him an atypical hotel worker. In addition to his hotel day job, he holds a master's degree in historic preservation studies from Boston University and teaches design technology at IUPUI. He published "Wegweiser," a booklet that provides a self-guided tour of German-American sites in Indianapolis, and worked as historian for the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission from 1983-'92. After that position was eliminated, he picked up more hours waiting tables at the Westin, where he'd supplemented his income during the holidays. He asked for as many hours as he could get as a day laborer, and would work seven days a week. He remembers signing on for shifts that included breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. He'd return by 5:30 a.m. the next morning to set up for breakfast again.
"After being unemployed a couple months, I was so happy to be able to do that," he said. He still likes the balance of different types of work: the physical, social job in hospitality, and the intellectual work of teaching and research. He found ways to combine his interests, using his historical archive background in his doorman job. He studied maps and historical names, and walked downtown's streets. "I always explored it," he said. "I drove all the interstate exits and ramps, I knew the compass addresses."
Some days, he'd stand for eight hours without a break. All that standing on concrete led to varicose veins and fallen arches. Still, he enjoyed his job. When hotel guests wanted a jogging route, he could give them exact mileage and a map he'd highlighted. He suggested restaurants and interesting sights, and checked in later when guests returned to make sure they had found what they needed. When people asked what they ought to do or see in Indianapolis, Selm always asked, "What are you interested in?" He had a knack for remembering people's faces. In 2003, Selm won a ROSE award, presented by the mayor to acknowledge hospitality workers who are good representatives of Indianapolis.
"Those guests were my guests," he said. "I took great satisfaction in giving good directions. That could make my day. Sometimes it's just the little things."
Then last August, when Selm arrived at work, a co-worker asked, "Did you hear the news?"
Selm's immediate response was, "Who died?"
Instead, the co-worker said they'd all been fired: The hotel planned to outsource their jobs.
"So it's finally happened," Selm said, recalling his reaction. "Management nine months before assured us they wouldn't outsource us. And after a nine-month gestation period, we get Rosemary's Baby.
"They don't say fired, but if they tells us we no longer have a job and won't be employed by them, and I'm not leaving on my own, that's fired," he said. "It was like being hit over the head with a bat."
After packing up his "briefcase of tricks" - his own wrenches, pliers and screwdrivers for when he would be asked to put on a license plate; measuring tape to make sure vehicles safely cleared the parking garage; and street atlases for detailed directions - Selm left on the eve of Labor Day. He reapplied for his job through Towne Park, the third-party company now in charge of hiring, and returned to the Westin in September as a new employee.
He said his hours were cut. Employees were forced to pool tips for the first time. By January, the hotel announced it was outsourcing even more of its staff, including the restaurant workers at Shula's. Once again, employees were invited to reapply for their jobs.
Selm remembered that he was either in the break room or a back hall when he asked, "Who's next? Who's gonna get it?" Someone overheard him.
The next day, a Towne Park manager told Selm the Westin no longer wanted him working there because of what he'd said. Selm was suspended pending an investigation. When a position opened at the Sheraton, he took it. He had made $8.40 an hour at the Westin as a full-time doorman. Now he makes $3.50 at the Sheraton as a bellman with part-time hours.
Since then, supporters of Selm's reinstatement presented a petition with some 300 signatures to Westin General Manager Dale McCarty, who declined to comment for this story.
The use of subcontractors at the Westin skyrocketed when workers went public about wanting to form a union, said Allison Luthe, a community organizer for Central Indiana Jobs with Justice. "I don't think that's a coincidence," she said.
The firing of Selm, an experienced, award-winning employee, was a way to intimidate other workers, Luthe said, adding that the message intended for Selm's former colleagues is, "If they can fire him, they can fire us, too."
Though hotel managers did not want to discuss specifics, Hyatt Regency General Manager Brian Comes issued a statement about unionization: "Hyatt is not anti-union, and in fact, Hyatt has many union properties across the country," he said. "This property has been non-union for several years and we have done nothing to interfere with our employees' right to make their own decision about whether they want a union or not."
If union efforts are successful, the three Indianapolis hotels will be represented by UNITE HERE, known for organizing in industries like textiles, hotels, restaurants and casinos. The majority of its members are women; this union is largely made up of immigrants and minorities. UNITE HERE said it has turned "hundreds of thousands of other traditionally low-wage jobs into good, family-sustaining, middle-class jobs."
UNITE HERE Community Organizer Becky Smith helps workers share their stories with community leaders, particularly where the hotel industry is concerned.
"We want to educate the community on the types of jobs created by the downtown tourism industry," she said. "I think it's wonderful Indianapolis is going for being a world-class city type of place. I just wish it treated employees who provide services to our visitors like world-class workers."
She said a union would bring workers higher wages, affordable health insurance and increased respect. "Housekeepers at the Indianapolis Hyatt are cleaning 30 rooms, and at the Westin between 18-22," Smith said. "In Chicago, where they're unionized, they do half that for twice as much pay."
Seybold, who teaches classes on work, inequality, labor unions and politics at IUPUI, sees a trend in organizing new immigrants and the working poor, particularly those in service fields. That view aligns with UNITE HERE's unionization efforts.
"In Indy and elsewhere, a lot of this is about the changing demographics of the labor movement," he said. "As you've seen with layoffs in the traditional factory setting, unions are trying to be much more active in organizing service workers, particularly ones who haven't had a voice.
"Most of the major, big cities are organized," he said. "Las Vegas has a huge amount of service workers, and they're heavily unionized. We've been a little bit slow to catch up with the trend because there's some resistance to unionization. Generally, we have more conservative politics, even compared to Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois."
Those involved say formation of a union would be easier through the Employee Free Choice Act, which aims to give workers more security and better wages by allowing them the right to form a union and to bargain through a union. The act would also enforce stiffer penalties for employers who violate workers' rights or otherwise intimidate those who want a union, and would help employees get their first contract in a timely fashion. The act was passed by the House of Representatives in 2007 but has been blocked by the Senate.
"Find another job"
The Employee Free Choice Act could benefit workers like Jessie Ham, a bartender at The Eagle's Nest restaurant at the Hyatt. She splits work with her studies at IUPUI, where she is an English major. Ham used to attend Loyola University in New Orleans, where she also worked at a privately owned boutique hotel. After Hurricane Katrina, she decided to return back home to Indiana. She originally applied for a full-time operator position at the Hyatt, but was told she'd make more money as a cocktail waitress. Her hours were cut to part-time "almost right away," she said.
When the union approached her about getting involved, she knew little about what unionization entailed. A trip to Chicago showed her how unionized hotel workers operated, not to mention their better pay, and she hopes a union could bring the same things to Indianapolis. Like many hospitality workers, she cites an improvement to service as one benefit.
"Service would be better for sure because we'd have a little more say in how things are run and what we need," she said. "We've been out of ginger ale for two weeks. Instead of somebody going to the store and spending $10, nobody does anything.
"If we had a union, we'd be able to push a little bit more," she said.
Ham considers what life would be like if she tried to raise a family on her salary. "If I had a child - and I'm in my mid 20s, so it's not farfetched for me to be thinking of it - I couldn't afford it, and I work in one of the nicest hotels and nicest restaurants," she said. "I could not afford to eat in The Eagle's Nest." Entrees at the revolving restaurant atop the Hyatt run approximately $30-$60.
She's been active in speaking up for workers' rights, and contributed to several videos making the YouTube rounds. In one, she tearfully describes hearing lewd comments from supervisors, or comments about her clothes and her body, or assumptions that she received a tip because of her clothing or appearance. Her manager saw the videos and mentioned them to her.
"He said he took it personally," she said. "In a way, I'm glad he took it personally. I'm glad it got to him. He's been better behaved around me. He's stopped making degrading comments about women. We don't have a union yet, but it was a big victory for myself."
Ham attended a Mayor's Night Out meeting in mid-May and wrote in a question for Mayor Greg Ballard: The Capital Improvement Board is bringing in $3.5 billion in revenue, the hospitality industry is creating thousands of jobs, yet hotel workers are struggling to get by. What can we do?
She said Ballard stumbled over the answer, eventually offering that she should "find another job." The mayor was unavailable for comment for this story.
"I don't want to find another job," she said. "I want my job to be better."
"I Love Indy Hotel Workers"
That's also an agenda item for Central Indiana Jobs with Justice, which distributes information to hotel guests to let them know they're entering a hotel where there's a labor dispute. They've passed out literature, stickers that say, "I Love Indy Hotel Workers" and have held fund raisers. Luthe, a community organizer with the nonprofit coalition, thinks educating the public is one major responsibility.
"I'm amazed at how many people don't know what's going on," Luthe said.
Jobs with Justice advocates for workers' rights; in this case, the workers want a card check neutrality agreement as a way to decide whether to form a union, and the management wants a secret ballot election. Hyatt GM Comes said workers who don't want to join a union may be reluctant to come forward or state their views. In his statement, he said that an election would be "guided by the same democratic principles underlying how we select our elected government officials."
The Indiana Hotel & Lodging Association also opposes card-check legislation, stating that a private ballot would protect workers' rights and cut down on coercion from union organizers. Those workers who oppose a union could vote against it privately. (IHLA's Web site, indianahotels.org, offers a link to send feedback on the issue to legislators.)
"It's inappropriate for me to comment on any specific efforts going on to unionize," said John Livengood, IHLA president. "As an industry and association, we support the current process to hold a secret ballot election. In my personal view, unions should stand up against the card check. Ironically, employers are standing up for employees' rights."
Luthe said employees in favor of unionizing the Hyatt, Westin and Sheraton North prefer the card check, because it's an easier and less time-consuming process.
"If we're trying to build ourselves as a great tourist destination, you'd think we'd respect the people bringing in that money," Luthe said.
She cited the average pay rate for housekeepers in Indianapolis at $7.50 an hour, compared to unionized hotels that pay $10.03 in St. Louis, $11.48 in Minnesota and $15 in Boston.
Obama's appearance at the Westin brought publicity to the workers' cause, but it also raised ire due to the conflict between workers and management. "As a representative of Jobs with Justice, I can say I think it was a mistake for the Democratic Party to have an event there," Luthe said. The fund raiser followed Obama's May 19 commencement address at University of Notre Dame.
Luthe said Ballard's response at the Mayor's Night Out was a sign that the unionization issue doesn't have the exposure or understanding it needs. "To say, 'Get another job,' does not acknowledge that the mayor of the city could play a role," she said.
Ballard, who was unavailable to comment on this story, lately has teamed with Gov. Mitch Daniels to focus on the Capital Improvement Board: According to news reports, they announced a plan to make $27 million in cuts to the CIB, but have not yet identified where the cuts would come from. Taxes would still go up, and this would include increasing the hotel tax from 9 percent to 10 percent, making it among the highest in the nation. The innkeeper's tax combined with the sales tax would be 17 percent, tying Indianapolis with Houston, Livengood said.
"We testified in favor of the governor's proposal even though it contains the 1 percent increase," he said. "We want the money raised to go to promotion, to offset the business we would lose due to the higher rate."
Extra tax revenue would benefit the city, though not necessarily its workers. That could change with additional choice for employees, local clergy members say. Members of the religious community convened May 28 at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church as part of a nationwide vigil to promote the Employee Free Choice Act. Speakers included local religious leaders, such as Michael Saahir, Imam of the Nur-Allah Islamic Center, who has also been a union firefighter for 30 years.
The Right Rev. Catherine Waynick, Episcopal bishop of the Indianapolis Diocese, said both her parents were in unions. "I understand the value of having a union, and the ability to gather in groups to speak up for what is right," she said. "Those things we consider essential for ourselves, we must consider essential for everyone."
James Jackson, senior pastor of the Fervent Prayer Outreach Ministries Church, described his recent lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., with Jobs with Justice. He compared the group's efforts to his finally getting braces on his teeth as an adult, which he'd put off for two years. The "temporary discomfort" would be worth the end result. And, he added, if he'd gotten his braces two years prior, "I would've been getting them off now," he said.
The speakers urged the crowd of about 40 to write letters to their representatives, and included both a form letter and a blank piece of paper for those who wanted to write their own.
State Rep. John Barnes has helped with vigils and marches supporting labor unions, and attended the May 28 event. "There are a lot of people on the Eastside in my district who work in those industries," he said. "I always thought collective bargaining was democracy in action. I'm just trying to get the word out. It's so important that we understand collective bargaining is a right."
Barnes, who teaches social studies at Warren Central High School, said the current economic recession hit the Eastside a couple years ago and has been exacerbated by industries like Navistar closing. He is surprised by those who see unionization as a controversial move. "[Opponents] are trying to make it seem like a radical new idea, when it's not," he said.
While it's clear that employees would like better wages and working conditions, many also mention the key word of their industry: service. They want to be able to provide it and provide it well.
That could happen with a union, said Jackie White, who has been employed by the Hyatt for 28 years. She's worked in housekeeping and a variety of other positions. The Mississippi native's first job was at age 12, picking cotton with her grandmother. That's how White learned her work ethic, and it's carried over into her career in hospitality.
"My grandmother told me, 'If you're not going to do a job right, don't do it at all,'" White said. "I really care about the service I give my guests, making sure their rooms are extra clean. I believe that guests deserve nothing less."
Besides a detailed checklist for cleaning, her personal measure of cleanliness is whether she would feel comfortable lying down in one of the hotel rooms. White, who also met Obama when he spoke at the Westin, hopes a union will create better communication between management and employees, as well as improve hours and conditions for service workers. "It can be very, very overwhelming," she said. "It's exhausting to clean 25-30 rooms a day. It draws the life out of you.
"Standards used to be higher," she said, but now there's too much work for too few employees. "This whole time, people have always been afraid of the word 'union,' that they can't speak the word on the property or they'd lose their job. We deserve a choice in what we want. If organizing would make things better for us, we need to organize."
Sometimes change happens slowly. It was the fall of 2007 when Selm and a group of employees went to the Westin general manager to announce they were formally interested in forming a union. "Especially after seeing real hotels in real cities," Selm said. He's traveled to New York, Chicago and Montreal to observe workers at unionized hotels; he said those employees have more professionalism. He sees outsourcing to contractors like Towne Park as a problem that contributes to high turnover.
"Outsourcing is geared toward an endless supply of 18 year olds," he said.
Selm also wants to see a fair process where workers gain more rights and representation, not only at the Westin but also the Hyatt and Sheraton North. The president's visit highlighted and heightened Selm's convictions. "It doesn't get better than that," he said. "The president enters this contentious place and mentions those issues, and chastises the guilty party for fear and intimidation."
Despite the turmoil of the last year, Selm has not given up on his old position.
"I'd like to work at the Westin again," he said, "under different conditions."