Union rep Mike Cerbo plans to fight the city's subsidy of a new Hyatt.
Union rep Mike Cerbo plans to fight the city's subsidy of a new Hyatt.
Jonathan Castner

Check-out Time

For weeks now, Mike Cerbo has been Mayor Wellington Webb's worst nightmare.

Cerbo, the secretary-treasurer of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 14, has campaigned relentlessly against Denver's $64 million subsidy of a Hyatt hotel planned for a parking lot across 14th Street from the Colorado Convention Center. The $217 million, 1,100-room hotel is crucial to the city's plan to double the size of the center.

Cerbo's union has insisted that before the hotel chain receives public funding, it must agree to "strict neutrality," meaning it would not take a position for or against any union-organizing campaign among its employees. Hyatt has refused to endorse that idea, however, so Cerbo is threatening to challenge the subsidy -- which was approved by the city council in early January -- by means of a ballot initiative, a move that has upset city officials and could destroy the deal.

If Webb wonders why Cerbo is fighting so hard, all he has to do is look toward the publicly subsidized hotel down the street.

The Adam's Mark Hotel received $25 million from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority in 1995, which the hotel used to expand into the former May D&F building across the street. For thirty years, the employees there had been represented by the union, even when the hotel went from being a Hilton to a Radisson. But within a year of the Adam's Mark taking over, the union was busted, and the hotel earned a bad reputation as a result.

Watching this was hard enough for Cerbo, but the huge public subsidy made it unbearable. "The city was so eager to throw money their way," he says, "but the blinders were on. They took a company with a terrible reputation and whitewashed it, and they deprived the workers of their right to collective bargaining."

Cerbo says the Adam's Mark hired a well-known union-busting law firm out of St. Louis, where the hotel chain's parent company, HBE, is also based, and dragged the union through endless rounds of hearings and appeals in front of the National Labor Relations Board. All the while, he says, the company let the employees know that anybody who was pro-union was not welcome at the Adam's Mark. "They stopped dealing with us altogether," he adds. "They used a lot of union-busting tricks. People were coerced into signing things. They selectively fired union members.

"That's part of our motivation in trying to get a neutrality agreement [with Hyatt]," he says.

The union campaign has startled the Denver City Council and put the mayor -- who claims to be a friend of unions -- in an awkward political position. Webb wants to bring the 2004 Democratic National Convention to Denver, but without a union hotel downtown, the city may not be able to attract the Democrats.

"There's no way we'd get the Democratic Convention without a union hotel," says city councilwoman Kathleen MacKenzie, one of four councilmembers to vote against the subsidy. "Having a union hotel would be a good thing for Denver. A lot of national organizations look for union hotels, because it's shorthand for fair treatment of employees. We're missing a niche of the market."

Hyatt officials say they are willing to allow union organizers into the new hotel, but they insist that the union's demand for strict neutrality would be a "gag order" that wouldn't allow them to talk to their own employees. "We want to maintain the right to talk to our people so they can make an intelligent decision," says Doug Patrick, Hyatt assistant vice president of human resources. "Our position has been that we have the right to talk to our employees in a factual manner."

But labor organizers say that without a pledge of neutrality, Hyatt could use veiled threats and intimidation to prevent its workers from unionizing. "There have been cities where Hyatt promised the community they wouldn't fight unionization and they turned their back on that promise," says Faith Raider, a Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union official based in San Francisco.

Of Hyatt's 120 hotels, only 36 are now unionized, and about one-third of its 33,000 hourly employees are in the union. Patrick says the demands that the union is making in Denver are part of a national campaign. "They've approached us with a similar request in Boston. And in Cleveland and Philadelphia, they've asked for similar agreements." Hyatt agreed to the union's demands in Philadelphia, Patrick says, because much of the financing for the hotel came from a union pension fund. "We deal with these issues individually. We want to take a look at what's right for the city we're operating in."

In Denver, the union successfully pressured hotel developer Bruce Berger, who signed the deal with Hyatt, to drop an earlier agreement with the Marriott chain. The union has been embroiled in public battles with Marriott in New York and San Francisco. The San Francisco Marriott, which is near that city's convention center, is the scene of constant pickets and a boycott that has been endorsed by Mayor Willie Brown. Employees at the San Francisco hotel have tried to negotiate a contract with Marriott for four years, and the dispute has been the subject of prolonged labor board hearings.

"The biggest problem is that labor law is so weak," says Raider. "A company can break the law and never suffer the consequences. At Marriott they fired workers for union activity. It can take five years to get them their job back. There's very little financial penalty for the company."

Almost all of San Francisco's downtown hotels are unionized, and because of that, Raider says, hotel employees there have higher wages and better benefits than in other cities. Many hotel workers are single parents, and Raider says the San Francisco union is especially proud of negotiating a child-care benefit for its members.

Whatever happens with the convention-center hotel, Denver is likely to have at least one new union hotel. The city has an agreement with Westin to build a hotel next to Denver International Airport. The hotel chain has already agreed to maintain "strict neutrality" and to recognize the union if a majority of employees want one. The city was able to demand this agreement because Denver owns the land underneath the hotel and is providing most of the construction funding through airport revenue bonds. The Hyatt, on the other hand, is being built by a private developer.

Cerbo says Denver should demand more of developers who ask for public subsidies. "The priorities are completely reversed," he says. "The city should be asking the developer, 'Do you have the community groups behind you? Do you have labor behind you?' Instead, the city is being held hostage by the developer."

Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 14, along with a group of other labor, religious and community organizations, is now moving ahead with plans to place an initiative on this November's ballot that would attempt to repeal the subsidy. The Citizens' Alliance to Stop the Hyatt Hotel Handout (CASH) filed a formal petition on Tuesday. Since the hotel would be unable to secure private financing while the city's support was up in the air, the move is sure to infuriate hotel supporters.

"If they have their way, there won't be any hotel workers," says mayoral spokesman Andrew Hudson. "We think this is wrongheaded. There's hundreds of hotel and construction employees who will be hurt by this."

"I don't think it's smart to hold up the hotel and convention center based on the fact that we can't come to an agreement with them," says Patrick. But the union vows to make sure its workers at the hotel have the right to organize.

"The Adam's Mark is the reason we're going to the wall over this," says Raider. "Every major player in the Adam's Mark got screwed. Does the city look at that and learn from it? No. That's why we've taken the position that we'll oppose this unless there is labor peace."


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