Battery Wharf Hotel workers walked off the job late Thursday morning, a year and a half into a fight over contract provisions that have been agreed to by every other major union hotel in Boston.
Among the hotel’s more egregious actions, according to the hotel workers’ union, is its refusal to adopt measures that protect immigrants, combat sexual assault, and counter the industry’s historical discrimination against hiring African-Americans, a decree that has been in the contract for more than a decade.
Shortly before 11:30 a.m., several dozen workers streamed out of an employee entrance at the waterfront property, clapping and chanting, and carrying backpacks, purses, and shoes they collected from their lockers on the way out. They were immediately joined by supporters wearing red shirts and carrying signs reading “One Job Should Be Enough” — the same slogan used during last year’s Marriott strike.
“What do we want? Contract!” the workers yelled as they marched in front of the hotel entrance at the four-building complex. “If we don’t get it? Shut it down!”
Inside the 150-room luxury property, where the presidential suite costs $1,000 a night, the lobby was quiet, aside from the chanting outside. The air was heavily perfumed, and a few people sat amid plush couches, a cooler of pineapple- and raspberry-infused water, and a gleaming grand piano.
The work stoppage — involving about 75 housekeepers, cooks, bellmen, banquet servers, and front desk agents — comes on the heels of the eight-city Marriott strike last fall that ushered in progressive contract provisions at union hotels around Boston.
The measures grant significant wage and pension contribution increases; paid parental leave; a guarantee for immigrants who lose their protected status that their jobs 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.
Battery Wharf Hotel, on the other hand, according to Unite Here Local 26, wants to freeze wages, do away with pensions and union health insurance, get rid of provisions protecting workers’ job security, and eliminate workers’ right to a fair schedule.
But the most shocking part of Battery Wharf’s position, the union said, is its attempts to undo longstanding provisions of the contract, including ending the hotel’s participation in an African-American hiring initiative intended to ensure the hotel staff reflects the makeup of the community around it. The hotel has already stopped participating in a task force intended to promote diversity in Boston hotels, the union said.
“We have never seen a company take such a retrograde approach to bargaining,” said Carlos Aramayo, the financial secretary treasurer of Local 26. “It flies in the face of the values that the city is promoting.”
The hotel — operated and partly owned by Westmont Hospitality Group, based in Canada — did not respond to questions about what, if any, services it would limit during the strike, but said in a recent statement that it appreciates its employees and is grateful for their patience during the bargaining process.
“It’s very hard to know the reality,” said George Heaton, who lives with his wife in a residence at Battery Wharf and has access to services provided by union hotel workers, such as room service and housekeeping.
“Screaming ‘shut it down’ doesn’t get to the crux of the issues,” he said as he left the property, but noted that it makes business sense for the hotel to “get with the program and sign a contract.”
Last year, the number of workers involved in work stoppages nationwide was the highest since 1986. The Boston area has been the site of several major job actions in the past year, including a six-month lockout at National Grid, the six-week Marriott strike that crippled seven hotels in Boston, and the 11-day Stop & Shop walkout that involved 31,000 workers.
Support for the labor movement is at a nearly 50-year high, with 64 percent of Americans approving of unions, according to a new Gallup Poll. Only twice since 1970 has the share of people supporting unions been higher: 66 percent in 1999 and 65 percent in 2003. And support is increasing almost equally among Democrats and Republicans as wages of working Americans remain flat while the cost of living skyrockets and corporations rake in record profits.
Young white-collar workers are adding to the resurgence of unions, even as the overall ranks of organized labor continue to slip. In Boston, graduate students, public defenders, radio journalists, lawyers, and theater directors have been banding together to form unions in recent years.
At Battery Wharf, banquet server Paul Uttaro, who has worked at the hotel for nearly 10 years, made the difficult decision to walk out with his co-workers Thursday just as they were about to set up a lunch buffet for an Ocean Spray meeting.
Uttaro and his co-workers noticed a drop in quality when the former Fairmont Battery Wharf changed hands in 2014, leading to fewer conferences and less work, he said. Like some of his co-workers, Uttaro, 42, who has an 8-year-old daughter, has taken second and third jobs — as a cook at several churches — to get by.
The working conditions at the hotel have deteriorated to the point where he and his co-workers have no choice but to strike, he said.
“You went from values like respect and integrity and taking care of people . . . to humiliation, retaliation, just the exact opposite of how business should be done,” he said. “It’s time for this to come to light.”
Housekeeper Serendou Kamara, 42, who was part of the nearly 100 Hyatt staff housekeepers in the Boston area who were suddenly fired in 2009 after unknowingly training their replacements, has been at Battery Wharf for nearly a decade.
“They look at us like we are stupid,” she said of management. “This is the only thing we can do so that they will hear us.”
The union has been asking business groups and other regular guests to boycott the hotel. State Senator Joseph Boncore, whose district includes the waterfront, has held several fund-raisers at the Battery Wharf in the past but has agreed not to support the hotel during the labor dispute. Given that he fights for workers’ rights and fair wages, he said he could not continue to patronize a hotel “that does not support the same ideals that I do.”
Boston City Councilor Kim Janey stopped by the picket line to offer her support for the workers. Union hotel work puts people “on the path to the middle class, it puts them on a path to home ownership,” she said. “These are good jobs that we’re fighting for.”
A couple walking toward the hotel with roller bags was caught off guard by the strike.
“Oh brother, I’m not thrilled with this,” the man said, noting that hotel rooms in Boston are expensive and often full, and that they had used American Express points for their stay.
“We have no choice,” his companion added, as they continued to the entrance.
Linda and Marc Avers, in town from Washington, D.C. for Marc’s 60th birthday, made the opposite choice. After discovering the strike when they arrived in a water taxi from Logan Airport, they immediately changed plans and found a room at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf (a non-union hotel that was not involved in the Marriott action).
“We’re not staying there,” Linda Avers said, as the couple waited for an Uber. “I don’t feel comfortable.”