Following the Marriott strike last fall, nearly every union hotel in and around Boston has agreed to adopt the same contract brokered with the hospitality giant, offering a broad array of enhanced benefits, from better wages and pensions to protections for immigrant workers and pregnant women.
But there is a lone holdout among the city’s major hotels: the Battery Wharf Hotel, which is not only resisting the new provisions, but refusing to sign off on language combating discrimination and offering job security for immigrants that has been in the citywide hotel contract for years, according to Unite Here Local 26, the union that represents hospitality workers in Boston.
The Battery Wharf, a 150-room luxury property on Boston Harbor where the presidential suite costs $1,000 a night, has already stopped participating in a task force intended to promote diversity in Boston hotels, namely when it comes to African-American workers, who are “grossly underrepresented,” the union said.
As in most of the industry, the majority of Battery Wharf employees are immigrants.
With negotiations at an impasse, Local 26 is gearing up for another strike. On Thursday, the union is planning to inform management that it has enough support from workers to authorize a strike. If an agreement isn’t reached, a formal vote will be taken Aug. 5.
In a statement, Nick Teeson, the general manager at Battery Wharf, said the hotel appreciates its employees and is grateful for their patience in the more than yearlong bargaining process.
“We are striving to reach a fair agreement for all involved,” he said. “Those negotiations are taking place at the bargaining table, and it is our policy not to negotiate through the press.”
No local hotel in recent memory has done what Battery Wharf is doing, said Brian Lang, president of Local 26, noting that the union can’t allow one hotel to “get off cheap,” especially if it means undoing social justice reforms that have been in place for more than a decade.
“Their positions are blatantly racist,” Lang said. “Their attitude is very in line with our president.”
Many of the roughly 80 employees at the hotel walked picket lines with Marriott workers last fall and saw the impact of the nationwide strike: a contract that grants significant wage and pension contribution increases; paid parental leave; a guarantee for immigrants who lose their protected status that their job will be waiting for them if they regain the right to work within five years; enhanced accommodations for pregnant workers; more stable schedules; an alert system for housekeepers in case of a sexual assault; and a registry of guests accused of sexual misconduct at the hotel.
But what the union finds most egregious is the hotel’s attempt to undo longstanding provisions of the contract.
“They’re trying to go backwards on everything that’s important in the contract,” Lang said. “They want to eliminate affordable health care, they want to eliminate retirement, they want to freeze wages, they want to increase the workload for housekeepers, they want to eliminate protections for the workers if the hotel gets sold, they want to eliminate protections for workers when it comes to subcontracting, they want to eliminate strong language that we have for protecting immigrant workers, and they want to eliminate the language . . . to make sure that the hotels reflect the community around us, particularly when it comes to the hiring of native-born African-Americans.”
In 2006, Local 26 established language in its contract that states that employers “shall take affirmative steps to further diversify the workforce to properly reflect the Boston area, including African-American workers.” Hotels agreed to work with a citywide diversity task force and a hotel diversity committee.
But during negotiations, Battery Wharf would only agree to a generic commitment to “strive to have a productive and hospitable environment with a workforce reflective of the diversity in the greater Boston area” and “respect the needs of the current workforce, which is composed primarily of immigrants.”
This reflects an outdated approach to diversity that doesn’t include concrete steps to achieve it, said James Jennings, a professor emeritus at Tufts University specializing in race, politics, and urban policy.
“That’s the old way,” he said, “which was really just an excuse to accede to the narrative of diversity but really not change a thing.”
Scott Fortes, a 32-year-old cook at Battery Wharf and one of just a few African-American employees, said the hotel’s refusal to commit to diversity initiatives is “hateful.”
“This is 2019,” he said. “We shouldn’t still be fighting for things we fought for back in the Civil Rights era.”
Longtime employees noticed a shift when the former Fairmont Battery Wharf changed hands in 2014. One of the new owners is Westmont Hospitality Group, a Canadian company that also operates the hotel. Lang said he is not aware of similar disputes at any of its other union hotels. Westmont did not respond to a request for comment.
Since the ownership change, workers said, they have been taken advantage of, ignored, and belittled. Fortes, the cook, is a single father with three children, and despite being the only one in the kitchen with kids, his request to have Father’s Day off was not honored. When housekeepers asked management for carts to transport linens and towels instead of carrying them to each room, “they don’t even look at us,” said Serendou Kamara, 42, who has been at the hotel for nearly 10 years. After Kamara, an immigrant from Sierra Leone, threw out her back while making a bed and had to be carried out to an ambulance on a stretcher, the hotel refused to pay her for four sick days until she filed a grievance, she said.
They think “we are nothing, this is the only job we can do,” said Kamara, who was part of the nearly 100 Hyatt staff housekeepers in the Boston area who were suddenly fired in 2009 after unknowingly training the contract workers who would replace them. “The way they’re treating us, it’s just like garbage.”
Jennings, the Tufts professor, said the hotel’s refusal to implement the union’s diversity initiatives works against the city’s plans for promoting equity and getting past Boston’s image as a racist place. It also may make some people and organizations think twice about coming to the city, such as the NAACP convention planned here next year.
“This kind of backward thinking is actually endangering the economic well-being of Boston’s future,” he said. “It has major ramifications.”
Despite the tight job market, several workers at the hotel said they weren’t thinking of leaving, as union hotel jobs can be hard to come by. But they’re not afraid to strike — buoyed by the success of the Marriott work stoppage.
Fatoumata Bah, a 39-year-old housekeeper of seven years at Battery Wharf, has four kids and family in Senegal to support. She needs a new car but is waiting until the new contract is in place.
“Right now my job is not safe,” she said. “We are ready for the picket line.”