An effort to organize employees at Hilton’s DoubleTree Suites has turned the hotel near the Charles River into a workplace that is sharply divided. On one side are housekeepers and other staff members fighting for more affordable health care and a collective voice. Resisting their efforts are administrative workers, restaurant servers, and others who don’t want to lose benefits offered by Hilton, which they say is a generous employer.
Both groups say they are in the majority.
As the standoff persists, the atmosphere has become increasingly tense, workers say, with members of the opposing factions avoiding one another in the cafeteria and each group pressuring the other to see their side.
The dispute escalated two months ago, when Unite Here Local 26,which represents about half the hotel workers in Boston, started a boycott of the DoubleTree Suites.
Organizers have been walking picket lines with workers and visiting employees at their homes, and guests have been approached by union supporters in the lobby and have had fliers slipped under their doors. Over one weekend in early May, a push to get groups to cancel room reservations accounted for more than $30,000 in lost business, according to workers who reject calls for a union.
‘All we are asking is for a democratic way out of this hole. We want this agony to end.’
Last week, the union sought to enlist the help of Facebook executive and “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg while she was in town to speak during commencement activities at Harvard University, which owns the hotel property. When Sandberg declined a meeting, hotel workers distributed leaflets championing their cause during her speech.
With the pro-union workers gaining publicity, other employees took the unusual step of speaking out publicly against what they say is Local 26’s campaign of “misinformation and propaganda” to boost union membership while threatening their livelihoods.
“They’re trying to wear us down until we roll over and say, ‘OK, let’s go with [a] union,’ by destroying business,” said Olivia Kennedy-Long, a waitress for 11 years at the hotel’s Green Room restaurant who has a degree in applied math and theoretical physics.
Employees who welcome union representation — many of them immigrants who wash sheets and make beds — say the effort is already empowering them to speak up for their rights, such as telling managers that there aren’t enough people on a shift or that working conditions are unsafe.
“That’s why we have to keep going,” said Victor Bernabe, who has been vacuuming hallways and stocking linen closets at the hotel for 11 years.
“Before, we couldn’t say anything,” said housekeeper Sandra Hernandez, a 21-year employee.
At a recent meeting with union representatives, housekeepers described being worked like “animals” and being given warnings if a single hair was found in a bathroom. Under the union, Hernandez and her fellow room attendants would be required to clean about half as many rooms per shift as they do now, according to Local 26.
Maintenance workers and housekeepers stand to benefit more from collective bargaining representation because it can limit their workloads, compared with front office employees who don’t perform manual labor, said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester,
That is why union fights are often divided along class lines, Chaison said. Immigrants with limited English and lower-skilled workers who believe their prospects of moving into supervisory positions are slim tend to support joining a union, while clerical workers and others who tend to identify more with management often don’t want to take the risk.
“It’s really asking who has more to gain by work rules?” Chaison said.
Hotel employees opposed to a union, some of whom work part-time, say more than half of the 133 non-managerial DoubleTree workers have signed a petition stating they want to remain non-union. All they want, they say, is for Local 26 to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a secret vote to determine whether a majority favors the union.
Hilton Worldwide, which operates the DoubleTree, told the Globe it also supports a secret ballot, but it declined to comment further.
Local 26, however, prefers a process called a card check, which calls for workers who support a union to sign cards saying so, instead of going through the NLRB. Local 26 has used the card check method to organize all 15 Boston hotels that voted to join the union in the past decade, said Brian Lang, the local’s president, because there is less bureaucracy involved.
“What’s democratic about a process that can get tied up in the courts for 5 to 10 years and the ballot box doesn’t get opened?” Lang said of a secret ballot. “It’s a litigation-laden path, and it’s exactly where the employer would prefer to go.”
Local 26 has been increasing its unionizing efforts around Boston recently, and currently has a handful of campaigns underway that it hasn’t yet made public.
The union says 70 percent of DoubleTree workers signed a petition last year asking for a fair process, an agreement that allows employees to discuss joining a union without retaliation from the company.
But DoubleTree doesn’t need a union, the group against it contends. Workers receive raises every year, have a 401(k) plan with a 4 percent employer match that is immediately vested, and can choose from a wide variety of health insurance plans. They also average more than four weeks of paid time off a year and get free computer and English classes.
The hotel has a 3 percent annual turnover rate, remarkably low for the industry, according to hospitality analysts. Hilton says half of non-managerial employees have worked at the hotel for more than nine years.
But Local 26 has negotiated higher wages and considerably lower health care costs for workers at Boston’s 29 union hotels. These workers also have a pension plan, get a $10,000 grant to buy their first home, and have access to free legal aid.
The pro-union group says managers are intimidating workers by telling them a union could mean an end to benefits like free meals and parking. But the anti-union coalition says people are being “brainwashed” by Local 26, and the campaign is huring the hotel’s reputation.
The anti-union group is also convinced that two relatively recent hires are union plants; the pro-union side says those workers voluntarily joined the fight, and that one has been subject to retaliation through fliers labeling him a “mole.”
“All we are asking is for a democratic way out of this hole,” said Afrim Hoxha, an administrator in the hotel’s sales department who supports the status quo. “We want this agony to end.”