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Hospitality union recruits African-American workers

Bobby Oliver cooked hot dogs at a concession stand at Fenway Park on Tuesday. jim Davis/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

Bobby Oliver juggles three part-time jobs to make ends meet – cooking hamburgers and sausages at Fenway Park during baseball season, working the grill for Celtics and Bruins games at TD Garden, and preparing meals at Suffolk University throughout the school year.

A stretch of away games can wreak havoc on his paycheck.

But this month, fresh out of a new hospitality training program for African-American workers, Oliver, 49, will start a full-time union job as a banquet cook at the Westin Boston Waterfront, with better pay and benefits to support his children and opportunities to move into a front desk or supervisory position. Oliver said he often sees black workers from other countries in stable union jobs — Haitians, Nigerians, Somalis — and wonders where all the African-Americans are.


“Now I feel like it’s my turn,” he said. “It’s like, wow, something for us.”

The training program is the central component of an effort by Unite Here Local 26, the hospitality workers’ union, to reach out to the African-American community to fill jobs that offer good wages and benefits. The initiative aims to expand the diversity of hotel workforces, increasingly dominated by immigrants, and meet the growing demand in the industry for employees who are fluent in English.

It is also part of a broader movement among local unions to add more people of color to their ranks and help address high rates of joblessness in minority and low-income communities. Unemployment among blacks in Massachusetts last year was 10.6 percent, compared to 6.6 percent for whites, and 7 percent for all workers, according to the Labor Department. The overall rate has since fallen.

Local 26 is taking a progressive approach to dealing with the economic disparities facing African-Americans, said Tito Jackson, a Boston councilor who used his connections with the black community to recruit trainees for the program.


“There is a very long history of African-American workers in that industry, but as of late we have seen a lot less,” he said. “This program is a workforce development and job-preparedness program that really gives people the skills, the confidence, as well as the opportunity to open the doors of jobs where they can take care of their family.”

Graduates who land union hotel jobs start at around $18 an hour and get low-cost health care, paid vacation and sick time, pensions and 401(k)s, and access to housing and legal services. Around a third of union members work their way up to positions paying more than $60,000 a year, according to Local 26.

Immigrants have replaced African-Americans in hotel jobs in recent years, pushing the percentage of African-American housekeepers, cooks, and bellmen into the low single-digits, union officials said. Among students who take classes at the union’s hospitality training center, only 16 percent speak English as a native language.

The phenomenon is attributed in part to a misperception that hospitality jobs are low-paying, dead-end jobs that Americans do not want. In addition, some hotel managers seem to believe immigrants have a stronger work ethic, while others may view immigrants as “less likely to know and assert their rights in this country,” said Brian Lang, president of Unite Here Local 26.

Industry representatives said the imbalance is simply due to more immigrants applying for hotel jobs.

The 10 graduates of the union’s inaugural training class — three of whom have landed jobs and another three who are interviewing — said many of their peers do not have the resources to better themselves, and the program provided the boost they needed.


“I’ve always tried to get a better job, a career. It’s just, we’re looked over,” said Latonya Ellis, 28, a former cashier and McDonald’s supervisor who plans to look for a hotel job after she has a baby in October. “If people are given a chance, maybe they’ll see that there are ambitious African-Americans such as myself.”

Diversifying the workforce to reflect the demographics of Boston is part of the hotels’ union contract. An executive at each of the city’s 29 union hotels serves on a citywide diversity task force. Nearly a quarter of Boston residents are black, according to the 2010 Census, which does not break out the number of African-Americans.

The union is applying for a grant from the city to expand the four-week training program, which is free for participants but costs the union $3,600 to $4,200 per person. To recruit participants, who go through three interviews and drug testing to be considered, Local 26 reached out to community organizations supporting people of color such as the Boston TenPoint Coalition, Haley House, New England United for Justice, and the Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston.

African-Americans make up a small percentage of the Westin Boston Waterfront’s 420-person staff, but that number will rise with the addition of Oliver, the Fenway cook, and possibly two of his fellow graduates, who are interviewing for jobs in the kitchen. General manager Michael Jorgensen does not know why so few African-Americans apply to the hotel, but he is dedicated to diversifying his largely immigrant staff.


“Employers and unions, we don’t always see eye to eye, but we certainly see eye to eye on this,” he said.

Around Boston, other unions have been on similar missions. Three years ago, the Building and Construction Trades Council of the Metropolitan District, an umbrella group of 20 local unions, started the Building Pathways pre-apprenticeship program to get more women and minorities into plumbing, painting, and other construction trades.

Among other efforts: The painters’ union formed a crew of Chinese natives to do work in Chinatown, the carpenters’ union worked with the Urban League to recruit people of color into its apprenticeship program, and the property service workers’ union, made up largely of Latino janitors, went into African-American communities to unionize security guards

“It’s clearly important to have a union, an association that represents working class people, to be represented by all people – men, women, people of color,” said Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston, who created the building trades program when he led the council. “It’s important to represent and reflect what a particular city might look like.”

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