Union Turns Up Pressure on Starwood as Hotel Talks Drag

Staff Reporter

Contentious contract talks have soured a once congenial relationship between the union representing Los Angeles hotel workers and one of the nation's largest lodging operators.

Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. operates three of the hotels on the nine-member council formed to present a unified front in the negotiations, now entering their sixth month. As the dispute drags on, labor leaders have increasingly directed their attention to the White Plains, N.Y.-based company, questioning its commitment to getting a deal done.

At issue is what union leaders characterize as Starwood's unwillingness to exert influence over the nine-member Los Angeles Hotel Employers Council. Labor leaders say Starwood could use that leverage to call a vote at any time.

Adding to the growing contention, Maria Elena Durazo, president of HERE Local 11, claimed that Starwood was behind the council's effort to lock out employees last month after workers at its Westin Century Plaza and St. Regis staged a sit-in.

"Their behavior is mysterious and troublesome to us," said John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. "I'm not trying to be rhetorical when I say we don't get this. We really don't understand their actions."

Calls to Starwood were returned by Fred Muir, a spokesman for the Hotel Employers Council, who reiterated that no single chain is directing the council's actions. "Everything this group does, it does by consensus," he said. "There are no divided votes. They all seem to be on the same plane."

Timothy Loughman, managing director of the Westin Century Plaza and the adjacent St. Regis Hotel, both members of the council, said Starwood had no more of a voice than any operator.

"Starwood does have the most hotels in the association, but we certainly don't set the agenda," he said. "All our votes have been unanimous."

'No divided votes'

In addition to the Hyatt and Starwood's Westin Century Plaza, St. Regis and Sheraton Universal Hotel, the other council members are the Hyatt West Hollywood Wilshire Grand Hotel, Millennium Biltmore Hotel, the Westin Bonaventure and the Regent Beverly Wilshire.

The group formed in March to coordinate negotiations with labor unions. Including other unionized hotels not on the council but that have said they will adhere to the resulting agreement, the hotels represent nearly 4,000 employees. In the event of a strike or lockout, however, only those hotels on the employers' council would be affected.

John Stoddard, general manager of the Wilshire Grand Hotel, also discounted the allegations against Starwood, saying that the union was attempting to isolate the operator as part of a national plan to link negotiations in different markets to combat large hotel chains.

"It's consistent with their national philosophy of organizing all these cities," he said. "The reason they want simultaneous contracts in all these cities is because Starwood is so big and powerful that they feel they can't negotiate with them city by city anymore."

Francis Najafi, chairman and chief executive of Phoenix-based Pivotal Group, owner of the Westin Century Plaza and St. Regis hotels, said that as negotiations have turned more confrontational, he has become concerned about a labor action.

"Unfortunately, the union has a national agenda," he said. "We as hotel owners don't want to get caught up in national agenda, and we are trying to stay focused on what's best for our employees."

In a town where labor's voice remains politically strong, losing union support could hurt the chain.

Starwood owns the Sheraton, Westin, Four Points Sheraton, St. Regis and W brands. It is developing a 300-room W at Hollywood and Vine and is also considered the front-runner to manage the proposed 1,200-room hotel adjacent to the convention center.

In both of those projects, support from labor would be an asset.

"We've been active in supporting developers whose projects would benefit hotel workers and L.A.'s overall tourism economy," Durazo said. "We are always willing to support projects with operators we think we can work with."

The downtown hotel is seen as vital to drawing large groups to the ailing Convention Center, and developers of the project say they will need some form of public assistance to make it pencil out.

"The last thing downtown L.A. needs is a hotel operator that wants to undermine workers' pay and benefits," Wilhelm said. "Starwood wasn't in that category but it seems to be going in that direction in a hurry. If this is the road Starwood is going down, then they don't belong in that (convention center) hotel or any hotel in which the public has a stake."

Loughman said he couldn't speak to Starwood's national labor stance, but insisted he hadn't seen a dramatic change in its stance toward the union locally.

Bruce Baltin, senior vice president at hotel tracking firm PKF Consulting, said the union's recent stance with Starwood contrasts sharply with the working relationship of the past several years. "Relations were good with Starwood, better than with other chains," he said.

But Durazo also questioned Starwood's position, since its sole owned-and-operated hotel in the market, the W in Westwood, was not a part of the collective bargaining unit and had little to lose by taking a hard line in the labor negotiations.

"It raises an issue as to why, when it comes to their owned- and operated-property, why aren't they in the mix?" she asked. "They are being very aggressive only with the property of others."

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