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Workers: Hyatt violating city agreement

Hyatt Regency Baltimore hotel employees plan to testify before the City Council that the hotel is violating its agreement with the city by subcontracting at least a third of its jobs to temporary workers.

The testimony had been scheduled for Wednesday, but was postponed due to inclement weather. It is now expected to come later this month or in early April.

The city owns the Inner Harbor site on which the Hyatt is located and, when the hotel was built in 1979, it signed a profit-sharing agreement with the city that prohibits any use of subcontractors. The rationale for the deal, according to Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who represents North Baltimore, was that city officials wanted to preserve those employment opportunities for residents in need of permanent jobs.

At the rescheduled meeting, the council will consider a resolution calling on the Hyatt to stop using subcontractors and to sign a “labor peace” agreement with workers. Clarke said that is “the most important thing” because it would enable workers to pursue unionization without fear of retribution and, hopefully, shield the city from potential revenue loss due to the ongoing dispute.

“[The labor peace agreement] is basically a memorandum of understanding that says the hotel will not retaliate in any way against people who are trying to organize as long as they do their jobs and abide by the rules of organizing,” Clarke said. “Originally, that kind of environment was envisioned through a handshake agreement back in 1979, but that never really occurred. We’re hoping it will now.”

Clarke, the resolution’s sponsor, said she believes it has unanimous support due to the potential impact on the city if the issue is unresolved.

“The resolution speaks to the need for a labor peace agreement at the Hyatt, the way we do have one at, for example, the Hilton [Baltimore], which we own,” she said. “Any discord or problems that would occur there are not only upsetting from a human point of view, but also from the interests of the city.”

Tracy Lingo, an organizer with Unite Here Local 7, a union representing workers in hotels, casinos and other hospitality sectors in Baltimore, is coordinating the hotel workers’ testimony. She said the union has called for a boycott of Hyatt hotels in other cities where labor disputes occur.

“We very purposefully have not called the boycott on the Baltimore Hyatt, but they have not showed any signs of moving in the right direction,” Lingo said. “… And the City Council probably thinks that where this is going is for the Baltimore Hyatt to be part of that global boycott, which would hurt the city’s profit.”

The council’s plan to hear testimony is the latest development in a dispute that began in June 2012, when Hyatt Regency workers began organizing in response to what some said were harsh working conditions and unfair labor practices, Lingo said.

Most recently, in January, the hotel settled a complaint filed that month by the National Labor Relations Board that claimed four workers who were fired in 2012 were unfairly targeted because of their intent to unionize. Hotel managers said those workers were let go because of unsatisfactory performance, primarily arriving late to work.

Hyatt Regency Baltimore General Manager Gail Smith-Howard could not be reached for comment Wednesday, although she has said previously that the hotel agreed to the NLRB settlement to avoid “a long and costly trial, despite [a] firm belief that Hyatt has acted professionally.”

Lingo said Unite Here is ultimately seeking the right for Hyatt Regency workers to begin a fair, neutral process of unionizing, Lingo said.

She knows the council is concerned primarily because of its financial stake in the hotel, but said there are also major ethical issues with subcontracting. Temporary workers, such as housekeepers, are paid less than permanent workers — as low as minimum wage compared with at least $10 an hour, she said.

Lingo said subcontractors are often pressured to be more productive, such as cleaning 30 rooms a day instead of the industry standard of 16 rooms, in a profession that is already physically taxing.

Clarke said the council recognizes the problem: Bringing in subcontractors who are willing to work harder for less money means permanent workers are left fearing for their jobs.

“The city asked for direct hiring of all employees for a reason,” she said. “It’s part of our interest for a harmonious effective team to run a hotel that we have a financial interest in. And for those people, most of them who live in Baltimore city, to be able to support their families, maybe even buy a house someday — not be needing food stamps and the like.”

Even if the council passes the resolution, it wouldn’t be binding. It’s more of a signal to Hyatt that city officials are paying attention, Clarke said.

“A major reason the city of Baltimore developed the Inner Harbor was, we were losing manufacturing jobs, and we needed to find some alternative for people who weren’t going to be college graduates but were hard-working, honest people,” she said. “Tourism and hospitality were what we chose, and the Inner Harbor is where we centered it. In ’79, the city said, ‘Direct employment.’ And that’s why in 2013 we are reminding people and asking for compliance.”