As the Battery Wharf Hotel strike stretches into its fourth week, with workers picketing 12 hours a day and negotiations going nowhere, tensions are ramping up.
The union is looking into a pair of Canadian consultants it thinks are behind a “Draconian” contract proposal intended to drive down labor costs, which it said could put the hotel in a better position to be sold and potentially benefit those same consultants.
Meanwhile, residents who live in condominiums at the luxury waterfront property are reporting being screamed at, flipped off, and photographed in their homes by the protesting workers, who are living on $400 a week from the union.
And judging from the nasty reviews on TripAdvisor, some guests aren’t happy either:
“Because of the workers’ strike, many amenities were missing that have been available to our family on prior stays — no room service, TVs not working, no clocks in room, cafe hours limited, etc.”
“When we pulled up we were escorted by cops to the front door while strikers were screaming at us: SHAME ON YOU!! It made us both extremely uncomfortable (which I’m sure was their goal) yet the hotel did nothing to make us feel better about the situation.”
“The replacement staff did not know how the espresso machine worked.”
Room rates this week range from about $300 to $1,200 a night.
A year ago, the Boston hotel industry experienced its first major strike in modern history when 1,500 Marriott workers walked off the job — the first in a string of Marriott job actions across the country.
The progressive contract that came out of the 46-day work stoppage has been agreed to by every full-service union hotel in the city, except Battery Wharf.
So on Sept. 5, the hotel workers walked out, launching the second strike in less than a year by Unite Here Local 26 members.
The difficulties started in March 2018, when union officials sat down with the new ownership group for the first time. Formerly a Fairmont property, Battery Wharf was bought in 2014 by Bestford Capital in Singapore and Westmont Hospitality Group in Canada, which also operates the hotel. The partnership, which also owns 89 Red Roof Inn properties, has a single union hotel in its portfolio, according to Local 26: Battery Wharf.
According to union officials, the proposal handed to the union at that meeting by consultant Zul Somani would have done away with protections for immigrants and women, eliminated diversity clauses intended to help African-American workers, gutted health insurance, scrapped the pension, increased workloads, and frozen wages. It also would have dissolved the union in the event of sale.
Local 26 president Brian Lang recalls taking one look at it and saying, “You’re kidding, right?”
Shortly after the meeting, workers said that Somani, a Vancouver hotelier, started approaching them in the hotel. Banquet server Marcos De Sa remembers Somani telling him that he was one of the new owners and that De Sa should be washing dishes and setting up tables in addition to his duties serving food.
“He was really aggressive,” De Sa said, noting that Somani said something along the lines of: “If you don’t do what I want, we’re going to close your department.”
Somani did not return to subsequent negotiating sessions, but David Gupta, a Toronto hotelier who is also serving as a consultant to Battery Wharf, did. Both men have long been affiliated with Westmont and have been involved in several contentious hotel dealings in Canada, according to news reports.
The same month that the union first sat down with Battery Wharf in early 2018, Somani and Gupta formed a limited liability company called Battery Wharf Hotel Management Services.
In an e-mail to the Globe, Somani said he incorporated the company “as I was looking for some other projects in the area but those didn’t materialize so this company is dormant.” Somani and Gupta both said that they have been advising Battery Wharf for several years and have no ownership interest in the hotel.
Battery Wharf general manager Nick Teeson did not respond to questions about the consultants.
But Local 26 officials maintain that Somani and Gupta are the driving forces behind the “backward” contract proposal. They believe the pair, who have claimed to be or represent the owners, could benefit financially from breaking the union by making the property more attractive to sell — or buy.
“These guys are a couple of thugs who think they can come into Boston and just bully people in order to get their way,” said Lang. “Like with any thugs, you’ve got to fight them.”
Somani and Gupta did not respond to questions about whether they stood to profit if the hotel’s contract proposals are implemented.
The fight is playing out in front of the hotel every day, as workers picket from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. It’s impossible to know how many guests have stayed away during the strike, and the hotel has repeatedly refused to address the strike’s impact on occupancy.
But the residents of the 104 luxury condos are feeling the impact on a daily basis.
A Boston wealth manager who has lived there for five years said that picketing workers are “terrorizing” residents. “Spitting at us, harassing us as we go in and out of our homes, calling me names, and yelling ‘Shame on you’ as I come home from a long day’s work trying to support my family, just as they are,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Globe, asking that his name not be used. “They are intentionally targeting the residents. They want to upset us enough that we go to the hotel and help them get what they want.”
“They call me entitled,” he continued. “I work extremely hard to live where I do. I am not entitled, and this to me feels like a war against those who have had some success.”
Lang said he didn’t believe workers were harassing residents, but he apologized for the disruption. “It happens to be one of the forms of expression that workers have to assert their rights to try to make their working conditions better,” he said.
In a recent letter to residents from the condo association, workers’ pay is spelled out in detail — housekeepers make $21.45 an hour, cooks make $22.87 an hour, plus benefits. The letter noted that Westmont wants to freeze wages for three years, while the union is pushing the hotel to adopt the same wage increase negotiated in the Marriott contract (roughly 20 percent over 4½ years). The letter also notes that Westmont wants more flexibility to reduce costs, including cross-training staff to perform multiple jobs.
“The current ownership group inherited a contract that had been agreed to several years ago by the larger hotel chains in Boston,” the letter states. “These hotels have very different business models than smaller, boutique hotels like Battery Wharf.”
Resident Joanne Prevost Anzalone, who owns Anzalone Realty in the North End and serves as vice president of the Battery Wharf residential condo association, said it’s not just the “horrendous” noise that’s getting to people. Furniture and FedEx packages aren’t being delivered because union drivers refuse to cross the picket line. Residents are having a hard time getting their cars valet-parked by Teamsters union members.
“Nobody is saying they don’t have a right to strike,” Anzalone said. “But what about the rights of the people who live at Battery Wharf?”