DNC bypasses city over labor clash

The Baltimore Sun

Because a union plans to picket a downtown hotel, the Democratic National Committee is moving its fall meeting from Baltimore to Virginia, disappointing local and state leaders who had anticipated the spotlight of a presidential campaign landing briefly on the city.

The event would have brought leading candidates to Baltimore between Nov. 29 and Dec. 1 to appeal for support from undecided national committee members -- those party leaders sometimes called "super delegates" because they can vote for whomever they choose at the summer nominating convention.

Several presidential candidates had also expressed interest in campaigning in city neighborhoods, Democratic officials said.

Maryland political leaders viewed the high-profile meeting, thought to be the first of its kind in the heavily Democratic city, as a reward for the state's solid Democratic performance in recent years.

But city and state party officials said it was more important to stand with union members, among the party's most ardent voting blocs, than to keep original plans to hold the meeting at the Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel, which is in the midst of a labor dispute. The meeting has been moved to the Sheraton Premiere at Tysons Corner in Vienna, Va.

Tourism officials acknowledged that the Democrats' meeting would have carried some prestige but said the economic impact of the change would not be significant.

The national party reserved 400 rooms and expected 1,500 attendees for its bi-annual meeting. This year, the event falls on the same weekend as the Army-Navy football game at M&T; Bank Stadium, complicating efforts to find another city location but raising the possibility that many rooms could be filled by sports fans.

While the 707-room Sheraton Baltimore City Center is the second-largest hotel in the city, it is the only unionized one in the city's tourism district, and it has just a fraction of the city's 10,000 hotel rooms. The party "absolutely" prefers to hold events in unionized facilities when possible, spokesman Luis Miranda said.

Unionized employees at the Baltimore hotel have been working without a contract since last year and are locked in a struggle with owner Columbia Sussex Corp. of Kentucky, which purchased the Fayette Street property in 2005 and spent millions renovating it.

Workers with Unite Here Local 7 plan to begin a picket line Thursday, and the party has agreed to a boycott request, said Quincey Gamble, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party.

"If they have the courage to step out and fight for better rights, we are going to honor that," Gamble said.

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon said through a spokesman that the decision was a "major disappointment."

"We were looking forward to showcasing our city to all of the major candidates for president, and certainly the mayor was hoping to share her vision for urban cities like Baltimore," spokesman Anthony McCarthy said.

DNC Chairman Howard Dean said in a statement that "the right to organize is one of our most fundamental rights, and the Democratic Party is proud to stand with the working men and women of Unite Here in Baltimore to help protect that right."

About 170 housekeepers, banquet servers, maintenance and food and beverage employees represented by Unite Here have been working without a contract since an earlier pact expired in April 2006.

At issue are disagreements over the outsourcing of work, seniority, health care costs, the workload for housekeepers, and changes to the gratuity payments for banquet staff.

"All they're looking for is a fair contract. The workers feel like they've been driven to this," lead organizer Krista Strothmann said of the boycott.

Strothmann called the national party's support "really incredible and wonderful."

"We're grateful that they're sticking by working people in the city of Baltimore," she said.

Columbia Sussex officials said union employees rejected its best and final contract offer that the company says would have increased wages, tips and benefits for workers, a claim the union disputes.

The company implemented some of its proposed work rules and other provisions in April, prompting the union to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. As a result, Columbia Sussex rescinded work conditions rejected by the union.

Company spokesman Hud Englehart said he hopes the boycott has a "negligible impact" on business.

"We'll continue to provide service, and we expect our employees to provide it. We think we have a very good work force to serve the customers," he said.

Workers at a new Hilton convention center hotel are expected to vote soon on an organized labor force, a decision that could double the number of unionized hotel rooms in the city and make Baltimore more competitive for union events, said Thomas J. Noonan, president and chief executive of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. He said he could not estimate the economic cost of the Democrats' decision, because his agency did not book the meeting.

Columbia Sussex has been counting on its existing labor force to be part of its future in Baltimore, Noonan said.

The facility opened in 1967 as the Baltimore Statler Hilton Hotel, a key piece of the city's early renewal efforts. It also operated as an Omni and Wyndham before Columbia Sussex acquired it.

The hotel has seen its share of political moments, accommodating participants in a September 1980 presidential debate between Republican Ronald Reagan and Independent John B. Anderson. President Jimmy Carter did not take part.

david.nitkin@baltsun.com hanah.cho@baltsun.com

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