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January 9th, 2008 Don Mcintosh | News Stories
 

Pillow Fight

Portland Hilton’s union workers push a boycott of their own hotel.

     
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Don’t Come Here: Union employees at the downtown Hilton march outside their employer’s building.
IMAGE: Eryn Slack

A union campaign urging a boycott of the Hilton Portland&Executive Tower hotel is starting to have some impact.

The union counts at least 275 Hilton workers as members of Portland-based UNITE HERE Local 9. And on Oct. 26, a majority of those Hilton workers voted to support a boycott of their downtown hotel employer after bargaining without reaching agreement on a new contract.

As one of just three union hotels in the entire state, the Portland Hilton has long been a favored spot for progressive political events—making about $1.5 million a year in union business, according to the hotel. But the Oregon AFL-CIO is backing the boycott. And politicians, unions and nonprofit groups have shelved plans to meet or stay there.

Planned Parenthood, the pro-choice group, moved a sold-out, 1,080-person Jan. 17 luncheon to the non-union Marriott, in accordance with union wishes. So did the ACLU Foundation of Oregon, which had a 450-person annual fundraising dinner scheduled March 8 at the Hilton.

“The ACLU has a long history of supporting the freedom of unions to demonstrate,” said James Phelps, the ACLU Foundation of Oregon’s development director.

No specific incident led workers to call their first-ever boycott, which doesn’t preclude the possibility of a future strike.

The top issue, however, is housekeeper workload. UNITE HERE, a 460,000-member national union of hotel and textile workers, has been trying to link the trend toward luxury beds in hotels like the Hilton with a toll on housekeeper health.

On the Hilton’s king-sized Serenity Beds, a housekeeper must lift at least part of a 113-pound mattress eight times while making a bed.

The union says all that lifting, plus having to rush to clean the required 16 rooms in an eight-hour shift, is a recipe for painful workplace injuries. Workers want the quota lowered to 15 rooms per shift; Portland Hilton management says the quota may be 16, but that the average works out to fewer than 15.

Under their current contract, which expired July 31, 2007, Portland Hilton housekeepers get $10.10 per hour. In San Francisco, for example, unionized hotel housekeepers have 14 rooms to clean per shift, and are now up to $17.50 an hour.

“[Management has] been real comfortable up there,” says Mike Casey, president of UNITE HERE Local 2 in San Francisco, of the union’s previous leadership at the Portland Hilton. “Some might even characterize it as a sweetheart relationship.”

In the past, the Portland Hilton’s union workers might not have put up a fight. Local 9 has long had little member involvement. Then, last February, the national leadership of UNITE HERE got rid of local leader Jeff Richardson and brought in seasoned organizers to mobilize members.

UNITE HERE’s national leadership asked Casey, head of the San Francisco local, to oversee negotiations on the Portland Hilton contract.

“We haven’t had any labor issues until this past contract, and the reason is that UNITE HERE on a national level determined that the local representative who was here for many many years was not aggressive enough,” said Portland Hilton general manager Tracy Marks. “Now the people that we’re working with are much more activist, and those are the people that are based in San Francisco.... We’re willing to discuss workload, we’re just really not being given an opportunity to do that. We haven’t said no to anything. They’ve given us a proposal and we’ve given them a counterproposal.”

Ten employees have signed up to become union stewards. One in 10 Portland Hilton workers joined a newly formed contract campaign committee, and union buttons began appearing on work uniforms.

“It’s an incredible cause, workers’ rights—all of us standing up,” says Eryn Slack, a 33-year-old former server at the hotel’s ground floor restaurant. Slack, who was employee of the month in November 2006, now works full-time coordinating the boycott as an employee of the union.

Bargaining sessions, which typically take place behind closed doors, have been opened up to Hilton workers. As many as 70 drop in to watch, and many leaflet periodically outside the hotel on their days off.

“We’re not looking to bring the San Francisco…standard to Portland in one contract,” Casey says. “But we are going to make progress, or we’re not going to have labor peace.


FACT: The state’s other two union hotels are also in downtown Portland: the Paramount and the Benson. The Portland Hilton is Oregon’s largest hotel, with 782 rooms.
 
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