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Businesses want to derail pro-union codicils to city hotel contracts.

As many of the traditional tactics used in labor struggles—strikes, lockouts—fall into disuse or become ineffective, the question of what will replace them remains open.

Among the trendiest tactical revamps on the union side has been to move the struggle from the picket line to the political arena, particularly in cities that have proved to be traditional labor strongholds. Places such as Cambridge, Mass., and Madison, Wis., (not to mention ultra-conservative San Diego) have seen efforts by local and state officials to attach worker-friendly conditions to economic-development subsidies received by companies that do business with government.

The District’s future hotel-development projects are a new front in these battles, and a bill snaking its way through the D.C. Council—the District Hotel Developments Labor Peace Agreement Act of 2001—aims to compel businesses to spread the wealth of city-funded tax breaks by entering into what’s been dubbed a “labor peace agreement.”

The bill calls for the District to make “prudent management decisions, similar to any private business entity, to ensure efficient management of its business concerns, and to maximize benefits and minimize risks.” To that end, the measure would empower the mayor to require businesses that receive city tax credits for hotel developments to sit down with labor groups and forge an advance settlement of wage scales and other working conditions. Such agreements, according to the reasoning of the legislation, would bring about a “peace” that results in no work stoppages or other union unrest that would delay or hamper the projects.

John Boardman is executive secretary-treasurer of Hotel and Restaurant Employees Local 25, the group that brought the measure to the council. He says that the bill is a good start to spreading the wealth of development tax credits more equitably and protecting the city’s investment, as well. “We ought to be about, as public-policy-makers and analyzers, the business of looking at an investment quantitatively just like everyone else in the world does with their money,” he says. “If it was your money, wouldn’t you be looking at all the things that were happening with it?”

Though it doesn’t mention the concept, the bill under consideration by the council is rooted in the growing “living-wage” movement, which has sought—through minimum-wage laws and other legislation—to raise the living standards of low-income workers. The labor peace agreement before the council doesn’t specifically mention the term “living wage,” but the reasoning is clear: City tax breaks should enrich workers as well as businesses.

Such tactics have been successful elsewhere, according to Good Jobs First, a District-based nonprofit research group that tracks government spending and taxes. For instance, the adoption of living-wage legislation has led Rhode Island to require companies to pay a median wage as high as 125 percent of the average industry wage, or about $17.88 for manufacturing jobs, in exchange for state tax credits.

The District’s measure—co-sponsored by Council Chair Linda Cropp and At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson—has also won support from other councilmembers, including Jack Evans (Ward 2), Adrian Fenty (Ward 4), Sharon Ambrose (Ward 6), and Kevin Chavous (Ward 7). At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, who chairs the Committee on Economic Development, in which any potential markup of the bill would occur, did not return numerous calls from the Washington City Paper about his views on the legislation. Brazil did release a statement through staffers that he supports the labor peace agreement but wants both sides to “meet to work out an agreement.”

According to labor and hotel management officials, Brazil has not yet passed that call for good old-fashioned negotiation along to them.

Hotel Association of Washington, D.C., President Reba Pittman Walker says the measure just isn’t needed. She argues that existing federal labor laws already give workers the choice of whether they want a union. “We can’t see any value in what this agreement does,” says Walker. “What we’re asking is, ‘What’s wrong with the process that’s already in place?’”

Walker—whose group includes 83 local hotels, of which 23 have unions—says that hotel managers are already dedicated to making sure employees have fair wages and opportunities for advancement through training programs that contribute to a peaceful working environment. “We haven’t done a survey, but based on talking to general managers, the employee pool is happy on both sides of the line,” she says.

Opponents of the measure, including Walker, argue that the District will lose out on new development projects. They point to a case in Wisconsin, where the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in February that several agencies and a major children’s hospital had delayed or protested signing $26 million in contracts with Milwaukee County because of “legal concerns about the county’s new labor peace ordinance.”

Hotel Association counsel David Wilmot predicts a similar reaction from District businesses if the measure passes. The labor peace agreement “is just a way to bypass the traditional process…and get the government in the middle. It’s not going to save the city money or avoid labor strife, which we haven’t had any….[Union leaders and others] say this is a peace agreement, but it’s [already] done just the opposite: created strife,” he says.

Hearings on the bill were held this summer in June and July, airing the strong support across union and activist groups for the measure. Mendelson says that he’s hesitant to describe the hearings (particularly July’s) as a “love fest,” but no one opposing the measure showed up to testify at either hearing. (Walker’s group and the D.C. Building Industry Association submitted written testimony against the measure.)

Despite management opposition, Mendelson says he’s optimistic that the bill will move ahead. Taking a cue from the union line of the argument, he says, “People who have an issue with workers’ rights always maintain workers are happy. The reality can be different. You have a better working environment when workers have more investment in the workplace. One of the ways to achieve that is by having a labor organization and having employers listening to employees.”

Walker is confident that her side will prevail. “We’re scheduled to have a number of meetings in the next few weeks with councilmembers,” she says. “We’re hopeful we’ll be able to kill the legislation and maintain a positive working relationship with Local 25.” CP