Unite Here — a labor union trying to organize workers at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore — gathered outside the hotel Tuesday to publicize a federal agency's decision to take the company to trial over alleged unfair labor practices.
The National Labor Relations Board issued its complaint this month, alleging that Hyatt Regency managers "interrogated employees about their union activities," began "invoking harsh discipline" when employees arrived late to work and fired four people this year as part of that campaign. A trial is scheduled to start Jan. 14.
"When I recently found out about this complaint from the federal government, it made me excited, it made me happy — it almost brought a tear to my eye," said Mike Jones, 37, one of the fired workers. "It shows that even though the Hyatt thought … that they can just bully us and push us away, we're still going to stay here and fight."
An administrative law judge will decide whether to reinstate the fired workers and whether to order the Hyatt to give them back pay.
The Hyatt Regency Baltimore's general manager, Gail Smith-Howard, said the hotel's management was "extremely disappointed" that personnel decisions in keeping with company policy were considered anti-union.
"We require our associates to be at work on time … just like any employer would do," Smith-Howard said. "I don't think that's something that's discriminatory."
Unite Here said hotel managers disciplined workers for arriving as little as a minute late. Jones, who worked at the Hyatt for 10 years, said the hotel didn't enforce its attendance policy until after he and other employees began trying to unionize. The Baltimore man said he was written up after traffic delayed him, though he said he called his manager from the road to warn him.
Smith-Howard said the hotel isn't trying to deter workers from unionizing but wants a secret-ballot election. That's a fair and democratic way for workers to decide, she said, arguing that Unite Here is making "false accusations" because it doesn't want such a vote. The alternative is for workers to sign an authorization card if they are in favor of unionizing.
Tracy Lingo, an organizer with Unite Here Local 7 in Baltimore, said the union wants hotel management to pledge to remain neutral on whether workers unionize, and to promise no retaliation.
"What's really happening at the Hyatt shows that almost always, that environment gets poisoned by that behavior before workers are able to make a choice," Lingo said of intimidation before a union vote.
Most of the allegations in the National Labor Relations Board complaint date to the summer. Unite Here filed its protest, known as a "charge," in September and the board's Baltimore-based staff investigated.
The turnaround — with a January trial — is speedier than usual, but a decision usually comes at least a year after trial, thanks to the board's backlog of cases, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University in New York. A conclusion might not come for several years if the decision is appealed up the line, she said.
Often, the parties settle, according to the labor relations board. But when workers win in court, any back pay an employer is required to pay will be reduced by wages its former employees earned after they were let go, Bronfenbrenner said.
At Unite Here's news conference Tuesday, speakers included the head of the NAACP's Baltimore chapter and a Catholic priest. Ernie Grecco, president of the Metropolitan Baltimore Council of AFL-CIO Unions, thundered to the small crowd that Hyatt workers "are not asking for the moon, they're asking for a decent job."
Regena Davis, who earns $4.50 an hour plus tips as an on-call banquet server at the Hyatt, said she loves hospitality work but not "the treatment that my co-workers and I are receiving." She said her hours are inconsistent — sometimes she's called in to work seven days in a week, and sometimes none. She said she's concerned about the Hyatt's use of temporary workers, who have less job security than she does.
"I hope to see more permanent workers, better health care options," Davis said.