Clergy group boycotts Rochester's Crowne Plaza Hotel - Catholic Courier

Clergy group boycotts Rochester’s Crowne Plaza Hotel

A clergy group advocating for increased wages and more affordable benefits for workers at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Rochester kicked off a boycott of the facility March 1 with a sidewalk rally outside the hotel.

The local group Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice has been threatening a boycott since November 2007, when two unions announced they would pull their conventions from the hotel due to the ongoing labor dispute. CLUE — whose membership includes some Catholic clergy and laity — says it has gathered more than 3,000 signatures on petitions advocating for the right of Crowne Plaza workers to decide whether to form a union.

Crowne Plaza employees have been considering unionization through UNITE HERE, a union of needle trades, industrial, textile, hotel and restaurant employees. UNITE HERE officials say many Crowne Plaza employees cannot afford the hotel’s health insurance, which, at $72 a week for family coverage, constitutes 22 percent of the average housekeeper’s salary. Many of the hotel’s employees qualify for such government assistance as food stamps, union officials noted.

Since November, CLUE volunteers have reached out to Crowne Plaza customers through phone banks, delegations and community-outreach efforts to inform them of the boycott and of the more than $5 million in public money the group says the hotel has received since 1982 in the form of low-interest loans, tax breaks and grants to create jobs offering wages above the poverty level.

CLUE promises continued picketing, street preaching, worshiping and leafleting, and is asking customers to not eat, sleep or celebrate in the hotel until management agrees to a set of standards that would be used to poll employees on whether to form a union.

Crowne Plaza management, on the other hand, contends that it does not need to agree to such standards because the federal government’s National Labor Relations Board already oversees a secret-ballot process that enables employees to decide whether to join a union.

“(The NLRB process) is still available, and I have encouraged (employees) to petition the NLRB, and they have refused,” said Crowne Plaza General Manager Paul Kremp. “The only reason I can believe is that they don’t have the employee support to win.”

Thirty percent of employees would be needed to petition the NLRB for a union vote, and it would take the vote of one employee more than 58 percent to win a subsequent election to unionize, Kremp said. He said he believes the NLRB process is fair to employees because it is a secret-ballot vote and because it binds both employers and unions to certain rules of conduct.

CLUE members pointed out, however, that some members of Congress have acknowledged that the federal process is unfairly skewed toward employers.

In 2007, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have modified the National Labor Relations Act by simplifying union organizing and increasing penalties against unfair labor practices, passed the U.S. House of Representatives but failed in the Senate by only nine votes.

CLUE leaders said concerns about the fairness of the NLRB process are the reason they are pushing for a private agreement of neutrality by the hotel’s management.

The private agreement CLUE has asked hotel management to sign would guarantee hotel workers’ freedom from retaliation and intimidation; freedom from employer coercion; equal access to information; open and reasonable debate; truthfulness; timely response; and freedom from outside harassment through organizations such as a union-avoidance law firm.

“Our organization created a group of community standards to let workers decide whether or not to form a union and be able to do this without interference from management,” said the Rev. Roy Hedman, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church and president of the Baptist Ministers’ Alliance.

However, such business organizations as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have contended that agreements like the on proposed by CLUE would not prevent coercion of employees by a union.

Under the NLRB process, Kremp noted that both he and the union would be bound by law as to what they could and could not communicate to employees.

“If we get involved in the community standards, it gives (the union) the advantage of making promises to the employees that they are not held accountable to,” Kremp said.

Father Laurence Tracy, sacramental minister for Rochester’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help and St. Michael parishes, said employees have told him that hotel’s management spoke with staff about the NLRB process several days prior to the March 1 rally. However, he said employees told management that only one side of the story was being presented.

“Only the unfair and one-sided National Labor Relations Board process was presented to the employees,” Father Tracy said.

Kremp, meanwhile, challenged the relationship between CLUE and UNITE HERE. He cited references to CLUE on the UNITE HERE Web site and the presence of a UNITE HERE employee at a meeting between him and CLUE members a year and a half ago.

“It’s unfortunate that a religious group is tied to a union, when they should be a nonpartisan entity,” Kremp remarked.

Speaking at the March 1 rally, the Rev. Kaaren Anderson, copastor of the First Unitarian Church in Rochester, rebutted Kremp’s allegations of excessively close ties between the clergy members involved in CLUE and the union.

“We find this very offensive to the members of CLUE, who are doing this for no other reason than to tackle poverty in the City of Rochester,” Rev. Anderson said.

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