Monday, May 7, 2001

No hotel strike

After 13 hours of talks, negotiators
avert a work stoppage at
6 major Waikiki hotels

If ratified by the membership,
the contract would be retroactive
to March 1, 2000

By Leila Fujimori

Negotiators for about 5,000 unionized hotel workers reached a deal early this morning with six large Waikiki hotels, averting a strike that would have coincided with a major international conference this week.

The talks between Local 5 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees and the Hawaii Council of Hotels ended after more than 13 hours at about 3:30 a.m. with a tentative deal that the union was to present to its membership this morning.

Details of the agreement were not given; however, the deal apparently includes a pay raise and an end to subcontracting for the life of the two-year contract. The contract, if ratified, will expire Feb. 28, 2002, and will go back retroactively to March 1, 2000.

The agreement came despite the bitter leadership battle that has divided Local 5 in recent years.

"We suffered a long time with a split union, and what turned the tables here is we were able to heal up the breach and get our membership fully in line," said Local 5 negotiator Eric Gill.

Gill had been the top elected official at Local 5 until February, when the union's Washington D.C.-based international took control of the Hawaii operation because infighting had left many of the 10,000 members without contracts.

The international appointed Sherri Chiesa, the Western regional director of HERE, as the trustee of Local 5. Chiesa headed the negotiating team that included Gill and his rival at Local 5, Tony Rutledge.

"I was able to work well with Mr. Rutledge through this, and that made a difference to our members, who want to be unified," said Gill, who had ousted Rutledge in a bid for the union leadership last year.

Today's deal did not come in time to entirely stop the union's plan for a work stoppage today. Local 5 last week had told its members not to show up for work this morning so they could attend a strike-vote meeting. Since no deal was reached by midnight, many union workers did not show up early this morning at the six hotels affected -- Hyatt Regency Waikiki, Sheraton-Waikiki, Royal Hawaiian, Sheraton Moana Surfrider, Sheraton Princess Kaiulani and Hilton Hawaiian Village hotels.

After the deal was reached, the union started informing its members to show up for work today. The hotels reported that operations were returning to normal.

Local 5 leadership was calling for a strike to begin tomorrow just as the Asian Development Bank meeting gets started at the Hawaii Convention Center. Gov. Ben Cayetano wants the international meeting to highlight the state as a place for business meetings and he expressed concern that a hotel strike would hurt Hawaii's reputation.

The union was to recommend the proposed contract to its membership at a meeting this morning at the Blaisdell Center.

"We're not totally satisfied, but our committee is willing to recommend their best and final offer from the company," Rutledge said. "And I think our members will accept it."

Gill said the union made substantial gains, but the contract will be controversial and some points will have to be explained to members.

Negotiators spent most of their time yesterday discussing subcontracting, the main sticking point to settlement, and it was one of one of the last items resolved, said Richard Rand, the top negotiator for management.

"There were a lot of compromises made on both sides, and that's how you get an agreement," Rand said after talks at the Sheraton Waikiki ended. "We're pleased with the agreement."

Rutledge did not want to give details of the deal before this morning's meeting. However, he did say: "There is not going be any more subcontracting, for the life of this agreement, anyway, but that's still going to be something that we are still going to have to face probably in future negotiations."

The negotiators were assisted by federal mediator Ken Kawamoto.

The hotels' management were relieved by the deal.

Curtis Aiwohi, guest service manager at the Sheraton Moana-Surfider Hotel, said this morning that "we were prepared for the worst, but everything is starting to come back to normal."

There were a few no-shows when the midnight shift started this morning, he said. "But we covered it by having a few workers stay over."

He expected the situation to be corrected when the morning shift began today.

At the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel, one worker this morning said: "Everyone is smiling. Everything is cool. It's great."

Scott Kawasaki, spokesman for Hyatt Regency Hotel, said "there were no problems" at the 1,230-room facility and operations were back to normal this morning.

He said "many employees called in to confirm their work schedules" once word of the tentative settlement was announced.

A spokeswoman at the Hilton Hawaiian Village said she could not talk about the situation at the hotel.

The weeklong Asian Development Bank conference at the convention center beginning today put pressure on the negotiating teams to settle, Rand said. Many of the conference delegates are staying at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

"I think any type of labor dispute during ADB would have reflected poorly upon Hawaii as a destination, and that was always something we were thinking about, and I'm glad it did not come to pass," Rand said.

When asked if the start of the ADB conference was being used as leverage, Gill said before yesterday's talks began: "Of course not. Leverage is leverage. The question is: if they want a settlement, what would it take? Would it be now or later?"

However, Gill added, "It's good timing for us, I guess."

Rand characterized the discussions as professional despite the late hours.

"We kept our cool and we were always able to laugh and joke with each other, since everyone in there was professional," Rand said.

Having the heads of the six hotels present at the negotiations expedited the talks, he said.

Gill praised Chiesa for her part in the negotiations. "She basically brought the two factions (of the union) together and presented a united front to the bargaining table."

Had there been a work stoppage or a strike, a contingency plan was in place at each of the four Sheraton properties, according to David Uchiyama, regional director of communications for Starwood Hotels and Resorts, the parent company of Sheraton. Nonunion personnel and management would have provided basic hotel services such as housekeeping, he said.

Of the two key issues, subcontracting union work to nonunion workers will continue to be fought in future negotiations.

Rutledge said subcontracting has been a tough issue for more than 13 years.

"We have to take a hard stand because they've abused it by using it for core jobs like housekeepers who clean lobbies," he said.

Housekeeping staff make up a third of the union work force, Rutledge said. They earn $12 an hour, but hotels are hiring people at $7 to $9 an hour to save money, he added.

"They're all concerned that if they can do it there, they can do it in any of the core jobs," Rutledge said.

The union says there are examples where the temporary use of subcontractors is acceptable, such as in cases where professionals are required to maintain new equipment or in emergency situations where a substantial increase in manpower is required.

Domie Molina, 54, a housekeeper at the Sheraton-Waikiki for 23 years, said: "They should eliminate subcontracting. What's the use of giving us a raise if we don't have a job?" Molina makes $13.40 per hour.

Molina said he would be happy if management eliminated subcontracting in lieu of a raise. "I'm not rich; I'm only an ordinary guy. I want the company to survive and the workers to survive."

On the other key issue, pay, management had offered a salary increase during prior negotiations Friday night.

Union member wages are not on par with those in other resort destinations, whereas costs here are higher, Rutledge said, holding up a list of wages in other cities. Although the union had been asking for a 5 percent increase per year for three years, Rutledge said earlier the union was willing to move from that position in order to bargain in good faith.

Star-Bulletin reporter Gregg K. Kakesako
contributed to this report.

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