CHICAGO - Unite Here, the union that represents hospitality workers throughout the U.S. and Canada, has reached a deal with Hyatt Hotels, ending a four-year bitter battle involving protests, strikes, civil disobedience and a global boycott against the chain.
"This is a wonderful day for hotel workers," said Sophie Kowalski, a housekeeper at Chicago's Hyatt Regency, as she headed out the door for home Monday afternoon. "It's the union sticking with us that did it," said Eva Ramos, her co-worker.
The agreement they are celebrating has two major parts. It settles contract negotiations that have been going on for years at unionized Hyatt hotels in major American cities, including at their Chicago hotel. It gives workers 4 percent wage and benefit increases including health and pension benefits through 2018, with retroactive payment of the wage increase back to 2009.
The second part of the deal calls for the union to end the global boycott and for Hyatt to remain neutral as workers at its non-union hotels engage in the process of forming a union. The boycott is to be officially lifted when Hyatt workers at the unionized hotels ratify the contract.
Over the years, the boycott has drawn enormous support from numerous other unions, workers' and human rights groups, civil rights organizations, religious groups and community groups.
The national agreement announced Monday applies to union workers in Chicago, the company's home base, and to workers in San Francisco, Honolulu and Los Angeles. More than 5,000 union workers in hotels in those cities will see their pay and benefits packages rise in accordance with the new contract.
D. Taylor, president of Unite Here, said he believed the agreement would be ratified.
"People are getting a substantial wage increase, a guaranteed pension and great health insurance, and that does not happen too often in America," Taylor said. "I think they will feel good about it."
The union sees the deal as a major victory and points to how, over the past two decades, it has raised living standards for its members in cities where major hotels have union contracts.
In New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas, some union hotel workers now earn more than $20 an hour with employer-provided health benefit plans.
At Chicago Hilton hotels, which reached agreement with Unite Here Local 1 this spring, housekeepers are paid $16.40 an hour and will see cumulative wage increases of $4.81 over the five-year contract that starts in September.
The union boasts of how it has contributed to improving the hospitality industry, pointing, for example, to innovative projects like the Culinary Academy in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas hotels fund and hire from the union academy, which trains and certifies graduates in a variety of culinary arts.
In cities where hotel workers are not unionized they earn either the minimum wage or just above it.
Unite Here spokespersons did not reveal further details of the new national agreement, saying they must wait for ratification by the membership.
They also did not give details about how, under the new national agreement, workers at non-union hotels will actually go about gaining union recognition.
One union official said, off the record, "It won't be straight card-check," referring to a process in which Hyatt would agree to recognize the union as soon as a majority of workers have signed affiliation cards. "But it will be similar in some ways to card-check because Hyatt will remain neutral and the time period between the signature gathering and the union election will be very short."
One of the problems union organizers have had at Hyatt over the years is the company's ability to delay and stretch out the time between the signing of union cards by the workers and the date of the union elections. The union notes that during that period workers have been routinely harassed or even fired for exercising their right to organize. It was one of the issues that gave an enormous amount of fuel to the global boycott, they say.
Another problem was Hyatt's practice of filling positions by using temp agencies. The temporary workers were desirable from Hyatt's point of view, not just because they were paid minimum wage, but because they could be used to replace higher-paid workers or, with the threat of being replaced, to pressure other workers into refraining from union organizing. Hyatt set off a virtual firestorm of protests across the nation when it replaced housekeepers at its Boston hotel several years ago with temporary workers after having had the temps trained by the full-time workers they replaced.
Details about how the new agreement affects the hiring of temporary workers have not been announced by either the union or the company.
The new agreement is a relief too for the Obama administration that feared a rift between the labor movement, an important part of its base, and the administration's new commerce secretary, Penny Pritzker, whose family owns Hyatt.
Pritzker's nomination was confirmed last week by the Senate in a 97-to-1 vote. The one opponent was Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont, who spoke for the labor movement when he said: "We need a secretary of commerce who will represent the interests of working Americans and their families, not simply the interests of CEOs and large corporations. Workers at Hyatt have been unjustly fired for trying to form a union to bargain collectively for better wages and benefits. Unfortunately, Ms. Pritzker chose not to defend those employees."
The new agreement, with the added bonus of Pritzker's official resignation from Hyatt's board of directors, gives the union room to back away from its fight with Obama over the Pritzker appointment and is seen as important for the 2014 mid-term elections, when union backing will be critical to the election of many Democratic candidates.
"You tell me if you think it looks like the Pritzker thing had anything to do with this agreement," the union official who spoke off the record said.
The timing of the agreement and Pritzker's appointment to the president's Cabinet are "nothing more than coincidence," said Doug Patrick, a vice president of human resources at Hyatt.
Photo: At one of many strikes over the last several years, this one at Chicago's McCormick Place Hyatt. Unite Here Local 1.