Hotel union members gathered at the Hawai'i Convention Center throughout yesterday for a strike authorization vote.

Union OKs
hotel strike

5 Sheraton and Hilton hotels
in Waikiki would be affected

Officials can use the strike OK
in bargaining with the hotels

By Tim Ruel

Unionized hotel workers voted 2,045 to 501 yesterday to authorize a strike against Hilton and Sheraton hotels in Waikiki, while hotels still struggle to bring in revenue in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

"The members have voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike," said Eric Gill, Local 5 financial secretary-treasurer. "I'm overjoyed with that."

The vote, taken at the Hawai'i Convention Center, covers 4,000 workers at Hilton Hawaiian Village and Sheraton's four Waikiki hotels. A strike authorization vote does not mean there will be a strike. That's up to union officials to decide. Gill said the union will attempt to reach a settlement with the hotels before calling a strike.

Local 5 negotiators are scheduled to meet with Sheraton Aug. 22 and with Hilton the following day. Local 5 is negotiating a four-year contract that would be retroactive to March 1 of this year, the point when the old contract expired.

The vote was intended to give Local 5 leverage at the bargaining table, by showing the leadership has the support of the membership, said John Wilhelm, general president of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. The international, based in Washington, D.C., is Local 5's parent.

The threat of a strike will hamper Waikiki's recovery from the fallout of Sept. 11, said Robert Katz, a Honolulu attorney who negotiates for Hilton and Sheraton.

It takes an attractive vacation package to entice tourists to go to the trouble of flying several hours to Hawaii, Katz said. "They're gonna really think twice" about getting on a plane with a strike looming, he said.

Wilhelm blamed the strike vote on the hotels. Management in Hawaii has been more aggressive than other cities, such as Boston and Las Vegas, Wilhelm said. For example, Hilton and Sheraton have banned several union representatives from visiting their properties in Waikiki, he said.

The representatives were union business agents, and they were banned because they were coming to the hotels in groups, without checking in, and were interrupting workers who were on duty, Katz said. "It's not a blanket banning so much as it is selectively enforcing the rule against only those who refuse to comply with it," Katz said.

On the contract front, Local 5 and the hotels are in disagreement over several issues.

>> Wages: The union is proposing a $2 wage increase for non-tipped workers and an 85-cent increase for tipped workers in increments over the next three years. The first increment would be retroactive to March 1. The hotels are asking for a $1.05 increase for non-tipped workers and a 30-cent increase for tipped workers. The first incremental increase would not be retroactive.

>> Pension: The union wants to increase the employer's contribution to an employee's pension plan 62 percent to $1.05 an hour from 65 cents, in annual increments. The hotels are proposing a 31 percent increase to 85 cents.

>> Health and welfare: The union wants to increase the employer contribution to the health and welfare fund by 29 percent to $3.36 an hour from $2.60. The hotels want to increase it to $2.98 in the first three years, then let a union-appointed actuary determine the appropriate rate for the final year.

>> Job security: The union wants to end the hotel practice of hiring companies that use lower-wage labor, known as subcontracting. The hotels want to continue using subcontracting for jobs that have been subcontracted in the past, to help control costs.

James Gifford, a Hilton bartender, said he voted in favor of a strike because subcontracting is a major concern in the food-and-beverage sector.

But some union supporters are against the strike vote, including Local 5's former financial secretary-treasurer Tony Rutledge and a committee of union members. They say Local 5 should have gotten management's best and final offer before calling for a vote. The dissenters want Local 5's international parent to take over the union in a trusteeship, just like last year.

At the time, Gill had beaten Rutledge in a union election but was in gridlock with a board full of Rutledge supporters. The international established a trusteeship and held new elections. Gill won again, and secured a more favorable board.

Wilhelm said yesterday he sees no evidence that Local 5 needs another trusteeship, which is a last resort meant for the "most dire circumstances."

Darcel Salanoa, a waitress at the Sheraton Moana Surfrider, said she doesn't care who is in charge of Local 5; she just wants a better contract.

Salanoa voted in favor of a strike authorization. She's angry at the hotels for paying extra compensation to their executives last year, while employees lost jobs and working hours because of Sept. 11. Starwood paid $3.2 million in straight bonuses to its top five executives in 2001, while Hilton paid nearly $2 million to its top five, according to filings with the Securities & Exchange Commission.

"That really troubles me when so many people lost their jobs," Salanoa said.

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