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Workers strike at three Hiltons

Wedding banquets and other celebrations slated for the weekend at the Hilton Hawaiian Village are to be held as scheduled despite a strike by union employees.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Workers at the Hilton Chicago Hotel began a three-day strike Saturday, similar to temporary walkaouts under way at a Hilton in Honolulu and one in San Francisco.

Unite Here union locals say the strikes protest what they call offers of "cheap recession contracts" from a company enriched by a taxpayer bailout.

Managers at the affected Hiltons, part of the worldwide chain owned by Blackstone Group LP, say they are bargaining in good faith.

The strikes by locals of Unite Here and their effects vary. But the locals all cited what they said was a Blackstone bailout.

Blackstone in February cut a deal to reduce its $20 billion debt by about $4 billion. The debt was partially owned by the Federal Reserve, which had taken over the debt from lender Bear Stearns, The Wall Street Journal reported at the time.

Blackstone acquired Hilton in 2007 for nearly $27 billion.

The scenes differ at each Hilton.

Hilton Chicago Hotel, Chicago
Workers told the Chicago Tribune they were walking the picket line to protest the bailout, in which Blackstone bought back millions of dollars in debt from the Federal Reserve at a steep discount.

"They got all this money from the federal government, and yet they won't give us a contract," said Gloria King, among about four dozen workers banging on pots and carrying signs that read "Taxpayers on Strike" outside the hotel at 720 S. Michigan Avenue, the Tribune reported.

Unite Here Local 1 spokeswoman Annemarie Strassel told the Tribune that workers plan to return to their jobs Monday. Their contracts expired in August 2009.

Hilton Chicago issued a statement saying the hotel is able to continue "operating as normal."

"Union tactics such as work stoppages and demonstrations will do nothing to bring us closer to a new contract," Hilton said. "They are harmful to employees, to the hospitality industry and to the City of Chicago."

Hilton said employees receive benefits and wages that are competitive, including fully paid health insurance with little or no employee contribution. The company said it has offered to increase wages and to increase contributions to protect employee pensions, and to substantially increase health fund contributions.

Hilton said a union proposal to increase wages 7 percent per year is untenable.

Unite Here said that Hilton is among several hotels that are pushing for higher room quotas for housekeepers, a change the union said causes concern about potential injuries to staff.

Hilton Hawaiian Village, Honolulu:
A five-day strike began Thursday at the 3,600-room hotel on the part of 1,500 union members includes housekeepers and food service workers. Wedding banquets and other celebrations slated for the weekend were to be held as scheduled.

Cynthia Rank, a spokeswoman for the largest resort in Hawaii, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the usual staff was replaced by management and other nonunion workers from the resort in Waikiki and other Hilton properties, as well as temporary hires.

KITV, Channel 4, said Saturday that guests complained about cleaning hotel rooms themselves, closed restaurants and noise from the strikers.

Jerry Gibson, the vice president of Hilton Hawaii, tried to paint a different picture. “We’re providing great housekeeping services,” he said. “95 percent of our guests are very happy and they’re being very good.”

The union's contract expired June 30. The last meeting between the union and Hilton's owner was Sept. 29, following a Sept. 15 strike authorization vote. Negotiators are expected to return to the bargaining table Oct. 25.

"Their proposals to date have signaled to us that they're not serious about settling this contract," said Cade Watanabe, community and political organizer for Unite Here Local 5.

“Blackstone, who owns Hilton, took $180 million of our taxpayer money, and they put it right back in their pocket when they're supposed to create jobs for us,” hotel employee Luciana Dupio told KITV.

Gibson, Hilton Hawaii's area vice president, said the company has offered to increase wages, maintain existing pensions and increase its health fund contributions to ensure employee health care remains fully paid with no employee contributions.

According to proposal highlights passed to union members, as of late September the union was seeking a three-year contract with average hourly wage increases of 40 cents the first year, $1 the second year and $1.25 the third year. Housekeepers at the Hilton Hawaiian Village currently earn about $16.50 an hour.

Union Square Hilton Hotel, San Francisco
More than 800 workers from Unite Here Local 2 walked off the job from the 1,902-room hotel Wednesday and planned to picket for six days.

City hotel owners say the action is harming the perception of the city and the "San Francisco experience."

The workers said in a statement that Blackstone proposed the Refresh Program, which would require housekeepers to clean 20 rooms a day, instead of 14, a 40 percent increase. "We call it the Dirty Room Program," said Guadalupe Chavez, a 30-year housekeeper at Hilton Union Square. "They've already taken $180 million of our taxes and now they want us to subsidize them by lowering our standards at work and customers' standards for a clean hotel."

Hilton General Manager Michael Dunne told local media the hotel was operating normally and was fully operational.

"We are using our managers and temporary replacements in the place of striking employees, with little or no disruption to guest services,” he was quoted as saying.

St. Regis Hotel General Manager Toni Knorr told television station KGO that repeated labor actions are disruptive.

"We need to protect the reputation of the city. Our customers who've been to the city have commented on how disruptive this action is to them," she said.

Patricia Breslin, head of the Hotel Council, said the union's pattern of actions, sends the wrong message.