Hotel workers fired for organizing

DETROIT – “We all signed union cards, the whole department. I thought if we stuck together, we could win. Surely they couldn’t get rid of the whole department? I was wrong,” testified Charles Hardin to the Southeast Michigan Workers’ Rights Board in Detroit on Feb. 26.

Hardin is one of five African-American employees of the engineering department at Detroit’s Atheneum Hotel “laid off” and replaced with non-union white workers after signing a membership card for Operating Engineers Local 547.

Hardin’s co-worker, Mercedes Boulding, told the board, “I signed a union card for better pay and to protect myself from getting fired for no reason.” He added that it is hard to find a job, and there are few openings. “It’s been rough on my family,” he said.

The five workers testified before a panel that included former Rep. David Bonior, Detroit City Council President Maryann Mahaffey, Metro Detroit AFL-CIO President Donald Boggs, Dr. JoAnn Watson of Detroit’s premier radio show, Wake Up Detroit, and members of Detroit’s religious community. Rep. John Conyers also sent his greetings and a letter of support on behalf of the fired workers. Boggs said that the Atheneum Hotel would be added to the AFL-CIO’s boycott list.

Dale Wilson, a two-year employee of the hotel, told the board that he took the job at the hotel because he needed health care benefits. “I believed that by organizing, I could better my pay and benefits,” he added.

Local 547 sent a letter to management late last October expressing the workers’ wish to be represented by that union. The five workers were let go on Oct. 27, 2002. The local immediately filed an unfair labor practices charge with the National Labor Relations Board. A hearing is scheduled for March 26.

Latheal Johnson, also fired for signing a union card, had worked at the hotel almost since opening back in 1993. “I know the hotel like no one else. I worked midnights and often ran the engineering department alone,” he told the board, “I enjoyed my job. However, after 10 years I realized with a union we’d do better.”

He said that he thought joining a union would provide protection form being fired for no reason. “I signed a card to change this.”

Union organizers also testified that they suspected this action by the hotel owners was a strategy to disrupt the organizing effort by Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 24 to unionize 50 other staff members in the hotel. They accused the owners of trying to send a message to other employees not to join or they too could be fired.

Another member of Local 547 told the World that other hotels around Detroit are organized in a similar manner. An unfavorable ruling by the NLRB might require recertification by those other bargaining units.

Donald Herron, also with two years’ experience at the Atheneum, spoke out, “I have a family. This is my life! All I did was sign a union card to better my life.” Of the hotel owners he said, “What they have done is criminal and I ask you to please assist us in getting back to work.”

The Southeast Michigan Workers’ Rights Board is a service of Southeast Michigan Jobs with Justice. SEM Jobs with Justice asks supporters to write to Jim Papas and Ted Gatzaros at Atheneum Hotel Suite 1000, East Brush, Detroit, MI, 48226 to demand that these workers are reinstated and their union recognized.

The author can be reached at jwendland@politicalaffairs.net