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Boston hotel workers authorize strike, if needed

Some companies haven’t signed citywide contract; union says job security is top issue

Hotel workers voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to authorize a strike at some of Boston’s biggest and most prestigious hotels if the companies don’t agree to a new citywide contract.

Fifteen of the city’s 24 unionized hotels have already signed the new five-year contract, which raises wages and benefits by 4 percent a year and strengthens protections for workers if a hotel is sold or goes into bankruptcy.

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The vote allows union leaders to call a strike if the holdouts, including the Sheraton Boston and Westin Copley Place in the Back Bay, don’t agree to the new contract for the 1,200 workers who work at the properties.

Union leaders are also authorized to take intermediate measures, such as informational picketing and calling for boycotts of the hotels.

In addition to the Sheraton and Westin Copley Place, the Hotel Commonwealth, the Ames, the Ritz-Carlton, the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel, the W Boston, and Westin Boston Waterfront have not approved the contract. The union is still negotiating with Courtyard by Marriott in Dorchester, but a strike vote was not taken there.

The main sticking point is increased job security, according to Unite Here Local 26, which represents about 4,000 hotel workers at 27 hotels in the Boston area.

With local hotels becoming more attractive to buyers, the union said it is crucial that employees’ jobs are protected in the event of a sale.

Boston’s hotel market is among the top five in the country, said Matthew Arrants of the hotel consultancy Pinnacle Advisory Group.

Room rates averaged a record $215 a night last year, according to Pinnacle, and occupancy hit a 12-year high of 79 percent.

New hotel development started taking off last year, and there has been a flurry of sales recently, including the Liberty Hotel, Hotel Commonwealth, and the Loews Boston Back Bay Hotel.

“Those are three pretty significant sales all in the last few months, and they reflect the strength of the market,” Arrants­ said.

The old Boston hotel contract, which expired Feb. 28, required a new owner to keep current employees, but the new agreement has additional protections, such as forbidding a new owner from ending the lease of a restaurant or other operation at the hotel covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

“The hotels are just another class of real estate now,” said Brian Lang, president of Local 26, pointing out that many properties are owned by private equity groups or real estate investment trusts. “We see many hotels being flipped every six years.”

Managers at several of the hotels declined to comment or did not return calls.

Srecko Lalic, a Chelsea resident and nine-year employee at the Westin Copley Place, said job security is the most important part of the contract.

“We are afraid if they sell the hotel to someone else, they will get rid of the union and our jobs won’t be safe,” said Lalic, 39, a server in the hotel’s Turner Fisheries restaurant. “We are not asking for anything special.”

The contract maintains the current health insurance benefits, pension plan, and access to free legal services, English classes, and a $10,000 grant for first-time home buyers.

There has never been a hotel strike in Boston, where about half of the hotel workers are unionized, Lang said, but it’s not unusual for the union to threaten one. Hotel workers voted to authorize a strike during the last two contract negotiations, forming massive picket lines in 2007, before agreements were reached at the 11th hour.

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com.
Follow her on Twitter
@ktkjohnston.
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