Unions focus organizing efforts on service sector workplaces

Hux, the Hyatt convention services employee who works a 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. shift, said he hopes a unionized workforce can help change what he sees as unfair practices. He said he's been disciplined for being one minute late, had bonus pay deducted for failing to alert managers when leaving at the end of a shift and had no way to challenge evaluations he deemed unfair. He says a point system to discipline workers was never enforced until union organizers showed up.

"I want it to be a better environment for people to come to work without the threat of being afraid or scared by managers," said Hux, who said managers told him not to participate in union organizing.

In November, the National Labor Relations Board issued a complaint against the Hyatt alleging unfair labor practices after Unite Here asked the board to take the case. The federal agency's counsel alleged that managers invoked harsh discipline when employees arrived late to work and fired four workers last year in reaction to their union efforts. The case was settled in January, with the hotel agreeing to reinstate some of the workers "dismissed for workplace policy violations."

Smith-Howard said some policies will stand. "Our employees are expected to report to work on time to take care of customers, like any business," she said.

One reinstated worker, Michael Jones, a 37-year-old dishwasher and steward for 11 years, said he decided to get involved in the union campaign because "I've been seeing a lot of good people treated unfairly." The tipping point came for him on a holiday weekend night when he was expected to work single-handedly to clean and close two kitchens, usually the work of four or five people, he said.

Jones said some permanent workers, including himself, have had their hours reduced and then filled by temporary workers.

"Why can't you give the hours to someone who works here or hire the temp full time?" Jones said. "It's kind of nerve-racking. My dad just retired from the city, and I'm the only one working. You've got to learn to juggle money real well. I rely on this job."

Since the settlement, conditions have begun to improve, he said.

"I'm seeing a lot more people have more courage and more heart," Jones said. "People who would never speak up are very vocal."