Unions have come a long way from the clashes of Norma Rae, especially in hospitality

Unions are a fossilized and corrupt concept existing only to vacuum up dues. Managers exploit vulnerable workers with no concern for their welfare. Unions reward tenure over merit and are trying to bankrupt honest corporations. Management would sell grandma to add a dollar to the bottom line.

Of course, none of those statements are accurate, but when the relationship between labour and management is not handled carefully — by both sides — it can quickly devolve into a “he said, she said” harangue. The key to avoiding that fate, say both managers and union leaders, is communication and respect.

“I think the challenges management faces in dealing with unions have always been there,” says Rob Housez, general manager of downtown Toronto’s Delta Chelsea. Housez has spent his entire career in hotels where some, and often a majority of jobs, were unionized. “The day-to-day challenge is to get yourself and your management team into the right mindset so they see the relationship as non-adversarial. Ensuring open, two-way communication can be difficult, but Housez believes it starts in the general manager’s office and trickles down. Whether you like it or not, he says, “Your employees have elected to put their fates in the hands of this group.”

About 60 per cent of the 378,000 people employed directly or indirectly in Canadian hotels are unionized, estimates Tony Pollard, president of the Ottawa-based Hotel Association of Canada, although the rate of unionization varies from region to region. With wages and salaries totalling more than $6.7 billion each year, labour is typically a hotel’s biggest expense and no one takes it lightly, he says, especially in a business so dependent on face-to-face service. However, in a measure of just how sensitive this topic can be, representatives from major hotel chains were not exactly queuing up to
discuss it.

“I think I’d be safe saying most [hotels] would prefer to be non-union,” says John Aman, Toronto-based national director of Organizing for the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), which represents about 10,000 hotel workers, largely in B.C. and Quebec. “That doesn’t mean it has to be difficult. It doesn’t make sense to have an acrimonious relationship, but the workers can’t be just an afterthought. That’s the most important thing.”

While unions have historically focused on wages, benefits, pensions, job security and grievance procedures, more recently issues like workload and occupational health and safety have become important, says Paul Clifford, president of UNITE HERE, Local 75 in Toronto. UNITE HERE, formed in 2004 by the merger of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), represents 50,000 Canadian workers in hotels, casinos, institutional foodservice, as well as textile and general manufacturing.

In recent years, increasing amenities and more luxurious rooms have boosted workloads for room attendants and resulted in significantly more repetitive strain injuries. “There needs to be recognition that it really is a major issue,” Clifford says. “There’s no [single] answer, but through a joint labour-management approach there are ways to resolve it.”

In Delta’s own surveys, health and welfare benefits still top the list of concerns for unionized staff, but Housez has also seen attention tilt more toward day-to-day and quality of life issues. One way Delta has responded is changing to fitted bottom sheets on its beds so attendants no longer need to lift mattresses. “The other hoteliers I talk to are [also] trying to be proactive on this issue,” he says, “but the unions’ focus on it may reflect employers in other [North American] markets who haven’t been as responsive.”

Both Clifford and Aman say the hotel industry has much to gain by cooperating with unions. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to work with a strong labour organization or a well-organized workforce, but it’s sometimes forgotten that both sides have a strong interest in keeping a facility running smoothly and profitably.

It’s a fact Housez agrees with, saying “In many ways a collective agreement simplifies the life of a manager. It’s a very clear statement of the rules. It can bring more clarity and consistency to the way you run your operation, and that’s good for both employees and managers.” For example, he says, when an agreement lays out exactly how seniority dictates scheduling, employees can’t accuse management of playing favourites or being arbitrary. “When issues do come up,” says Housez, “dialogue can head off an awful lot of problems before they hit the grievance procedure.” And because working with unions can be daunting at first, Housez says Delta provides plenty of training and assistance, particularly for those new to supervisory or department head roles.

Like any relationship, the CAW’s Aman believes the biggest factor is how long the two sides have been dealing with each other. “In those chains where we’ve been involved for a number of years, and had numerous collective agreements, we’ve learned to work with each other,” he says. “Plus, there is a healthy respect for the CAW even among those who are not very fond of unions.”

That said, it’s not surprising one of the most difficult times for a hotel is just before and just after its staff certifies. “There’s a knee-jerk reaction to oppose the unionization of hotel workers. It’s not rational, it’s just a deeply ingrained response,” says Clifford. “But if we take a step back and look at it, most successful urban centres for the hotel industry in North America are those that are highly unionized: Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal,” he says.

However, one recurring issue that unions and hotel companies will probably never agree on is the use of replacement workers in the event of a strike. While some jurisdictions, including B.C. and Quebec, have banned replacement workers for some time, the subject has heated up recently thanks to private members’ bill C-257. Sponsored by Bloc Québécois MP Richard Nadeau, it proposes to extend the law to all federally regulated enterprises.

HAC’s Pollard says “We’ve been devoting a lot of lobbying time and effort to see this doesn’t go through.” To buttress the industry’s case in favour of replacement workers, Pollard cites a government study that found no difference between the frequency and duration of strikes in provinces that ban replacement workers, compared to those that don’t. He also makes the point that closing and reopening a hotel is both extremely complex and damaging to the property’s image.

Clifford, not surprisingly, does not agree. “In the jurisdictions that have anti-scab legislation, I would challenge any hotel company to say it made less money as a result,” he says. Clifford points to competing figures showing there are fewer days lost to labour disputes when business know they can’t bring in replacements. “Two hundred workers against a global hotel corporation, large REIT or private equity owner — is that a fair fight? Not really. That’s why we say anti-scab legislation levels the playing field slightly,” he says.

One point both management and unions agree on is the need to keep reminding governments how important tourism and hospitality is to the Canadian economy. Clifford says this recognition has started to come, which is good for all involved, and also offers an opportunity for some “enlightened leadership on the part of industry figures.”

“I do think the industry is under greater scrutiny by the public and decision makers, and there’s going to be closer examination of what these jobs provide,” Clifford says. “Labour-management relations are a way of addressing and improving the jobs in the hotel industry, so in the long run it develops a much better reputation.”                 


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