Clergy push for labor rights - Catholic Courier

Clergy push for labor rights

ROCHESTER — A newly formed coalition of clergy and labor groups staged a petition drive and a July 19 rally in front of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in support of employees involved in a labor dispute with the downtown hotel.

Catholic representatives of Clergy and Labor United for Economic Justice — or CLUE — said Crowne Plaza employees have been considering unionization through UNITE HERE, a union of needle trades, industrial, textile, hotel and restaurant employees.

Several clergy representatives of CLUE, which supports workers’ rights to economic justice, said Crowne Plaza workers should be allowed to explore the possibility of unionizing without fear of reprisals. During the rally organized by CLUE, demonstrators presented petitions to Paul Kremp, the Crowne Plaza’s general manager, pledging support for the hotel workers and asking that they be paid wages higher than the average of $7.30 per hour reportedly received today. The petitions had been signed by more than 2,500 members of Catholic parishes and other churches in the area.

“The City of Rochester not only supports this, but is actively pursuing a union hotel downtown,” Rochester Mayor Bob Duffy said at the demonstration.

Yet Kremp, who identified himself as a Catholic, said he believes his hotel is being unfairly singled out. He said the hotel’s administration is following the law, is not intimidating workers and treats its workers as well or better than do other hotels throughout the area. He said he has met with clergy twice to discuss the issue.

“We will allow (the workers) to make that decision on their own,” Kremp said of the possibility that the hotel’s approximately 200 workers would unionize. “It is their choice and their choice only.”

Some of those who have signed the petition are themselves hotel workers, said Father Laurence Tracy, sacramental minister at Our Lady of Perpetual Help and St. Michael parishes in Rochester.

Regardless of whether any of their members are directly affected, Catholic social teaching compels area Catholic parishes to become involved in such issues, said Father William Spilly, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Hamlin.

“We as a church have teachings about the rights of workers regarding a person’s right to choose to unionize or not to choose to unionize,” said Father Spilly, a CLUE member. “It’s important that church leaders be supportive of workers.”

Marvin Mich, director of social policy and research for Rochester’s Catholic Family Center and another CLUE member, said CLUE is not taking a stand on whether the workers should unionize.

“We are just saying they should be free to choose either way, and get the correct information and not be intimidated for talking about this,” Mich said.

Mich said hotel workers have told members of CLUE and UNITE HERE that they have been intimidated by management for getting involved in the union movement.

Kremp categorically denied that instances of intimidation have occurred. “Absolutely not,” he said. “And there has been no finding of anything like that.”

Kremp said that he has worked at both bad and good hotels in Florida, California, Massachusetts, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and New York. He said he has tried to adopt the best philosophies of the good companies and avoid those of the bad.

“From my experience, overall, I think our employees are treated as good and/or better as a whole (as compared to other hotels),” Kremp said, noting that he has tried to create a family atmosphere among the staff.

Kremp declined to speak about specific pay ranges or benefits that Crowne Plaza employees receive, saying that the information could affect future employee negotiations. He said he has requested a salary survey of hotel employees from the Rochester Hotel Association.

K. William Gunther — president of the hotel association, chairman-elect for the state Hospitality and Tourism Association, and managing director of an area hotel — said the salary survey is in progress, but that results are not yet available.

The association also has performed informal salary surveys, which showed that Crowne Plaza is one of the higher-paying hotels in the area, said Gunther, a Catholic. He noted that the hotel’s workers may receive slightly higher wages to cover the cost of parking downtown.

Mich said that UNITE HERE’s research shows Crowne Plaza workers make an average of $7.30 per hour. Kremp also noted that some Crowne Plaza workers receive tips in addition to wages paid by the hotel. Acknowledging that hotel guests do not tip uniformly, Kremp said tips can add up.

“Several of our tipped employees make a significant amount of money, and some of our non-tipped employees are very competitively paid across industry standards,” he said.

Nevertheless, Mich said many full-time hospitality workers still do not earn enough to live on.

“The pay is not great, and the work is quite demanding,” he said.

Most workers also are uninsured or underinsured, Mich said. Information included with the CLUE/UNITE HERE petitions states that hotel workers are more likely than the typical service worker to experience disabling injuries, and 67 percent of housekeepers report severe or very severe physical pain due to their jobs, according to a national study done by UNITE HERE.

Mich said CLUE hopes to encourage Crowne Plaza and other hotels to increase the average hourly wage for hotel workers into the double digits, and noted that a wage hike could encourage workers to be more loyal. He added that labor coalitions hope to move hotel and other service workers into the middle-class earning bracket, because — unlike manufacturing jobs — work at hotels cannot be outsourced to foreign nations.

Gunther said he personally believes that hotel owners and managers would pay their employees more if they were able.

“In the service industry and, in particular, hotel managers and owners realize their staff and their employees are their products,” he said, noting that there is a misconception that hotels operate with large profit margins.

“That’s a fallacy,” Gunther said. “The margins are extremely small, if not negative.”

He added that the hospitality associations he belongs to are not opposed to union activity.

“All we want is that (collective bargaining is) done in a fair landscape,” Gunther said.

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