By ERNIE GOTTA and ERWIN FREED
— STAMFORD, Conn. — The stakes were high for Sheraton hotel workers during their union election her on Dec. 13. Sheraton workers won a stunning but close victory, 69 yes votes to 32 no votes, in the face of a vicious anti-union campaign by the Davidson company, which manages the hotel.
For nearly four weeks, the company tried to harass and intimidate the workers out of the union. At the same time, they held daily anti-union captive-audience meetings, often lasting two to three hours—disguising them as factual informational meetings—to turn workers away from a future in which collective and democratic decision making would lead to better wages, retirement, and health care.
Stamford Sheraton workers filed for a union election on Nov. 19, 2018. Well over 70% of the workforce signed cards stating that they wanted the election. Since then, the Davidson company has been hosting multiple professional union busters from the infamous firm Cruz and Associates, the same people that Atrium management used to try to stop the workers at the Stamford Hilton from organizing last year.
The bosses are able to do this because between the filing and the election there is a three to five-week period in which the company is allowed to force workers to attend “captive audience” meetings where they tell them all sorts of lies, half-truths, and partial facts about the union. They call this “educating the workers.”
Support and solidarity for the workers has come from around the country. Workers at already unionized Davidson shops in different cities sent videos and pictures talking about why they need their union and urging Sheraton workers to stay strong against company intimidation and tricks. Locally, the Communication Workers of America Local 1298, The Stamford Professional Fire Fighter’s Association Local 786, and a contingent of university students from around the state and neighboring New York have gone into the shop to do solidarity delegations.
Health care is one of the main issues Sheraton workers bring up when discussing why they want the union. Mauricio, a bartender, says he’s received only one raise after 26 years on the job and simply can’t afford health care. The story is the same for many of his co-workers. Those who can afford the health coverage face high deductibles and extremely poor coverage.
Despite the vast majority of Sheraton Stamford workers’ living in Connecticut, most of the medical-care facilities that take their insurance are located across state lines in New York. The real outcome of the insurance offered by Davidson’s “world-class” management is that multiple workers have tens of thousands of dollars of medical debt, while others go without necessary medical treatments because they can not afford the coverage in the first place.
Joe Hutchinson, a front-desk agent at the hotel, told Socialist Action, “Joining the union is a no-brainer. Without the union there is no way of seriously addressing our coworkers needs and securing our future.”
Joe’s words ring true when viewed through the lens of recent history. Fifteen years ago, workers at this same property tried to organize a union but failed. Neither they nor the union organizers had made any real preparation for the tricks that the bosses play. After signing up an overwhelming majority of the shop, workers went public to call for a union election. The bosses saw the beginning of a fire and moved quickly to extinguish it. They offered the housekeepers, who were the largest and most pro-union department, raises to their $8/hour salary that ranged between $1 and $3. The trick worked and the union lost the vote. The workers were not prepared.
In this more recent drive, Unite Here Local 217 rank-and-file leaders from the Hilton and Hyatt went over their own experiences dealing with the union-busting firm Cruze and Associates. All of the workers were told ahead of time the tricks of the bosses and were proved right again and again. Sometimes, managers and Cruze and Associates lawyers would say the exact phrase to the letter contained in Unite Here’s educational materials. This time, the workers were too prepared to be fooled.
The Sheraton marks the third area hotel to join Unite Here Local 217 in the last four years. Stamford is the largest hospitality market in the state due to the many large corporations with headquarters in its downtown. Combined occupancy in the five major hotels is regularly over 2000 people a night in a city with a population of 130,000, and a new hotel, a Residence Inn, opened this November.
This represents a break with what has become the orthodox way organizing drives are carried out. Usually they are heavy on staff and forego union elections, which involve weeks of attacks, intimidations, and promises from the company, in favor of simple card checks or other conciliatory agreements between the union bureaucracy and the companies. These models leave the workers largely outside of the organizing efforts and position the union as a service rather than a united workforce fighting for their rights.
In contrast, organizing efforts at the Hilton and the Sheraton have been led by rank-and-file workers. The victories at both hotels make a resounding argument to generalize the method far beyond Stamford’s borders.