Union push under way at 2 Indianapolis hotels: They would be first to unionize in central Indiana

Employees at two Indianapolis hotels have begun a push to unionize-a move that, if successful, would make the properties the only union hotels in central Indiana.

Several workers at the downtown Westin and the Keystone Sheraton have met with representatives of New York-based Unite Here, a labor group that represents about 440,000 hospitality and textile employees nationwide. Both hotels are part of Bethesda, Md.-based Host Hotels & Resorts Inc.’s global portfolio.

Backers said a union is needed to raise wages and improve benefits and working conditions. They’ve circulated a petition asking management to remain neutral during discussions and asked the hotels to allow a so-called “card signature” vote instead of anonymous balloting.

In a signature vote, employees who want the union add their names to a voting card until a majority is reached. Managers usually prefer secret votes, saying a public process leaves too much room for union backers to pressure co-workers.

The local hotels haven’t responded to the requests, union supporters said.

Union backers staged demonstrations at each hotel in mid-December, but they don’t have plans for what comes next.

“We’re going to keep trying to get a response from the company first,” said Dennis Miles, a seven-year bell staff employee at the Westin.

Unite Here is seeking to represent about 180 of the Westin’s employees and 105 Sheraton employees. It is not clear how many employees support the effort.

Westin General Manager Dale McCarty said the effort to organize has been going on for nine or 10 months.

Unite Here also tried unsuccessfully to get “labor peace” requirements added to the city financing package for a $425 million convention hotel complex planned downtown. Such agreements require hotel operators to work with Unite Here to set up a process for future workers to vote on unionization. In exchange, the union promises not to picket or back labor disruptions at the hotels.

Opponents said the agreement would jeopardize the project by increasing operating costs.

Observers say two things are driving union interest in Indianapolis: Unite Here is growing and tackling more markets, and Indianapolis’ burgeoning hotel business has put it on more radar screens.

“This is a fairly new phenomenon in the hotel industry” outside of major markets like New York City and Los Angeles, said Sotiris Avgoustis, chairman of IUPUI’s tourism department. “But I think it’s going to become an even more important issue in the near future.”

Unite Here already represents about 8,000 workers in Indiana-mostly in commercial laundries, manufacturing and distribution companies. Indiana has only four unionstaffed hotels, all associated with casinos.

Unite Here spokesman Antony Dugsdale said the lack of a union hotel in Indianapolis is keeping the city from bidding on up to $600 million in convention business that requires union hotel accommodations.

But Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association spokesman Bob Schultz thinks that estimate is high. He said union meetings generally require a union hotel to host, but that isn’t a focus of local marketing efforts.

“Traditionally, those are single-property meetings and a very small market we don’t really target,” Schultz said.

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