Four-Star Feud

Martin Goff is director of organization at the Hotel Employees Union Local 17
Craig Lassig

Last month KARE-11 news aired a lengthy "Extra" segment about the Grand Hotel Minneapolis. Reporter Mark Daly gushed over the three-floor, 58,000-square-foot fitness center (complete with boxing ring) and 3,500-square-foot, $3,500-a-night presidential suite (complete with Steinway grand piano). He ticked off the names of celebrities who have laid their pretty heads down at what's billed as Minneapolis's only luxury hotel, including Al Gore, Bono, Janet Jackson, and Billy Joel. Viewers learned that Tim Allen spent nearly two months at the Grand Hotel while filming Joe Somebody and that he absolutely loved the sushi bar.

What Daly failed to mention is that for the past two years, the Grand Hotel has been embroiled in a labor battle with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 17 that has grown increasingly contentious. While celebrities have been enjoying four-star rubdowns at the Grand Hotel, organizers at Local 17 say the needs of workers have been ignored. The organizers contend that Grand Hotel owner Jeffrey Wirth's ultimate goal is to drive out the union.

Last March the employees unanimously voted down a contract proposal from management. Since then each side has filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board charging various violations of labor law. In September the company that operates the Grand Hotel also sued four union employees, alleging that they trespassed on company property and interfered with business. No negotiations have taken place between the two sides since November.

Wirth refused to be interviewed for this story. But in response to written questions from City Pages, he issued a statement claiming that union employees at the hotel "are paid higher than they would be at any other Minneapolis hotel." Wirth further denied that he has broken off negotiations with Local 17, stating, "We always have been and always will be willing to meet with the Union at anytime."

The labor dispute involves just 45 workers, including housekeepers, bartenders, and laundry workers, but it carries additional symbolic weight. The Grand Hotel is located in the former home of the Minneapolis Athletic Club, where for decades the city's powerful broke bread. Led in part by legendary activist Nellie Stone Johnson, the Athletic Club workforce first organized in the mid-Thirties and remained a union stronghold until it closed in 1998.

"It's a place that's of great symbolic importance to the union because it was the Minneapolis Athletic Club," notes Peter Rachleff, a professor of labor history at Macalester College. "It was one of the birthplaces of the union."

Three years ago, Wirth purchased the Athletic Club, and after a $45 million facelift reopened it as the Grand Hotel in November 2000. Wirth at first refused to hire back many of the workers. But after Local 17 threatened to picket the hotel he offered jobs to most employees who wanted to remain with the business. The union remained in place, but under an existing contract; attempts to negotiate a new deal for workers have proved fruitless.

One veteran worker who has been with the company since the Minneapolis Athletic Club days says that her present wage, $8.69 an hour, is actually less than what it was before Wirth took over. In addition, her paid vacation time has been chopped from three weeks to one. "They're really screwing around," says the employee, who requested anonymity because she was afraid of losing her job. "I know they want to be a four-star hotel, but they'll never make it, not the way they're going." (The Grand Hotel receives a three-star rating in the 2002 Mobil Travel Guide.)

According to Martin Goff, the union's director of organization, more than salaries divide the two sides. Local 17 was initially seeking a 30-day probationary period for new workers, while hotel management wanted 60 days. Goff claims that when the union eventually agreed to the longer trial run, the hotel responded by spiking its demand to 90 days. "Sometimes they behave like a moving target, and you can't negotiate with a moving target," he says.

Neither can the two sides agree about healthcare and pension plans. According to Goff, the Grand Hotel has repeatedly claimed it can provide insurance and investment packages that are more beneficial to employees than what the union is offering. However, the union has yet to lay eyes on the proposals. "They told workers that we've rejected their healthcare proposal, but they haven't given us one," he says.

Rachleff says it is not uncommon for hotels to take advantage of changes in ownership to drive out organized labor. In recent years, he notes, similar disputes have broken out at the Radisson Hotel in Minneapolis and the Holiday Inn RiverCentre in St. Paul. Just last week the Holiday Inn agreed to let workers decide whether they want union representation following a nine-month campaign by Local 17 and its allies. "It's in this pattern of hotels closing, refurbishing, and then trying to walk away from the union when they have reopened," Rachleff argues. "That's been a national story and that's been a local story."

Rachleff further posits that part of the motivation is to get rid of older, more expensive workers. "These hotels want to have young, good-looking women in short skirts serving in their restaurants, working behind their desks, creating an atmosphere where the out-of-town business-man will really feel--what's the adjective? -- randy," he says. "And the randier he feels, the more he wants to return to the Grand Hotel."

In September the hotel filed a lawsuit charging that Goff and three other union employees illegally trespassed on hotel property on August 16 of last year. According to the lawsuit, which is being heard in U.S. District Court, the union representatives held a meeting with on-duty workers without management's consent. "Due to Defendants' trespass and subsequent actions while trespassing, numerous guests complained of poor service," the lawsuit states.

Local 17 denies the allegations. Goff says that the meeting was previously scheduled and entirely appropriate. He further notes that similar allegations by hotel management were rejected by the National Labor Relations Board. At the same time, Goff charges, Wirth has been holding mandatory employee meetings to disparage the union.

Two other NLRB complaints filed by the company have likewise been dismissed. Local 17 has also made numerous allegations of labor law violations, including that employees were wrongly disciplined for attending union meetings. Those, too, have been dismissed, with two exceptions: Last month the Grand Hotel agreed to remove a letter of discipline from the file of an employee who was chastised for attending union negotiations; the hotel also agreed to post a notice stating that management would not question employees about union activities.

Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit and the complaints before the federal panel, Goff worries that as the process drags on, workers will become confused and disaffected. "This can be a complicated process," he says. "We have a number of people who don't speak English and they're a little confused."

Local 17 is now looking to crank up the heat on the Grand Hotel. On January 17 the union held an hourlong rally on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, but the demonstration failed to elicit a response from hotel management. Local 17 is now contemplating daily protests and is also hoping to enlist other supporters to put pressure on Wirth. "We are talking to our allies and asking them to write the company, to inform the company that they're aware of the dispute," Goff says.

At the same time Local 17 is leery of engaging in all-out guerrilla warfare. "We're being careful," maintains Goff. "We're not asking people not to eat there. We're not asking people not to stay there. We're not stopping deliveries. We're just informing the public that there's a problem there.

"We just want some four-star wages for what they want to be: a four-star hotel."

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