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As a battle to unionize D.C. parking attendants hits a speed bump, both sides rev up their PR engines.

Contemporary labor disputes rarely evolve into the bloody battles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Strikes are rare now, and labor-related violence is even rarer. The label “scab” doesn’t carry the same stigma that it once did. The political power of unions has diminished over time. But organizing activity is once again on the rise. In such a landscape, most labor conflicts are now fought in isolated, tiny battles, with little sensationalism.

Take the Parking and Services Workers Union, Local 27, of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. The AFL-CIO-affiliated union has focused in recent years on organizing parking-lot workers in the D.C. metro area, and it has succeeded in unionizing 40 percent of the approximately 2,500 local parking attendants.

Local 27 has now taken aim at parking giant InterPark Inc., which operates more than 60 parking properties in the D.C. area, including Atlantic Garage and CarrPark. In total, InterPark garages account for close to 10 percent of the local market. The struggle to unionize the company’s workers has consumed two years with no resolution in sight. And the rhetoric on both sides has hardened.

“This could last five more years, but we won’t back down,” says Ann Swinburn, research analyst for the union.

“This could last forever,” says Jeffrey Kovach, market officer for InterPark.

Caught between the union and InterPark are the company’s approximately 300 parking attendants, many of them recent immigrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and West Africa. They work long hours inside carbon-monoxide-filled parking lots, and they usually earn minimum wage.

Hailemelekot Hagos, a New Carrollton Metro station parking attendant from Ethiopia, has been a union member with Local 27 since its start seven years ago. He is now vice president of the union’s executive board.

“Basically, it is very hard for the first generation of immigrants,” says Hagos, speaking from an enclosed parking booth that’s equipped with a small fan and a transistor radio. “We need the union to have a voice.”

Whether Local 27 will succeed in unionizing InterPark’s D.C.-area employees has boiled down to some rather complex tactical warfare that seems, on the surface, counterintuitive. InterPark is pressing for a speedy up or down vote on unionization. Local 27 is opting for a slower strategy intent on grinding down InterPark’s resistance to a union.

In April, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rejected InterPark’s second request for a government-supervised vote on unionization in two years. The vote is impossible, the NLRB ruled, because Local 27 refuses to be recognized as the bargaining agent under the voting arrangement requested by InterPark.

InterPark says that Local 27 officials are scared of an election, because they believe that workers will vote down the union and its dues. Local 27 argues that the NLRB vote approach preferred by the company involves costly and contentious litigation before and after the election, without adequate protections for organizers.

“With a vote like that, the company can intimidate workers, who happen to be the voters in this case,” argues Swinburn. “They can be fired, promoted, or have their schedules changed. There cannot be a fair election in a workplace when the employer has complete control over workers’ livelihood.”

Local 27 says that it prefers to organize via a “card-check” agreement. Under that process, a company agrees to recognize a union if a majority of its employees sign union authorization cards. Under rules that govern the sign-on period, the union promises to refrain from protests, picketing, or public criticism of the company.

Predictably, InterPark officials refuse to agree to the card-check process. The company says that it won’t cave in to pressure to allow its employees to unionize in what it calls an “under-the-table” deal.

Both sides retain significant leverage and seem intent on thwarting the opponent’s strategy. It’s a recipe for stalemate. The procedural deadlock has shifted the battleground to a series of lawsuits, leafleting, and story pitches to local media. That fight has been as tough as a parking-lot brawl.

On a warm April morning, about 30 people—most of them Local 27 organizers and supporters—set up an informational picket at the entrance of the InterPark-operated CarrPark garage on the corner of 14th and F Streets NW. The picketers distribute leaflets, wave placards, shake rock-filled cans, and march in circles. They chant slogans such as “InterPark, you’re no good! Treat your workers as you should!”

The demonstration lasts for about an hour, as a stream of fancy cars pulls into the lot. Not much else happens.

“This is to show the social injustice of the situation,” says Local 27 President Roxie Herbekian, who leads the picket. “Look at all these expensive cars and these high prices the commuters are paying.” She believes informational pickets “pressure [InterPark] clients [into] realizing how this company is ignoring its workers’ rights.”

InterPark’s Kovach calls the protests a diversion from the real issue, which is the company’s insistence on an employee vote on whether to have a union.

The attention lavished on getting press isn’t misplaced. The media have been a galvanizing force in publicizing the plight of parking-lot attendants in the past. In 1993, the Washington Post ran a series of articles on dangerous working conditions on lots and highlighted the fact that Metro parking attendants were forced to urinate in water bottles because they were not allowed time for bathroom breaks. Metro’s parking attendant contractor, Silver Spring-based HMC Management Corp., lost its contract in the wake of the Post’s stories and was replaced by Penn Parking, which agreed to allow its parking attendants to unionize.

Of course, press attention is a sword that can cut both ways. Several days before the NLRB ruled against InterPark in April, a report on radio station WAMU-FM observed that the company’s vote request might set off a lengthy process to determine whether InterPark would become a union shop.

Local 27 organizers were peeved that the report set forth only the company’s line on the complicated NLRB voting process. InterPark “put a press release out, and we were out all day,” says Swinburn, “so we couldn’t give our side of the story.”

Kovach says that his attempts to place stories in the media about InterPark’s side of the story are simply a response to Local 27’s tactics. “We have kept a quiet, professional image for some time and allowed the union organizers to dominate the media,” he argues. Kovach adds that “for every 50 workers they have you talk to, I can have you talk to 250 others.”

Another battleground has been letters that both sides have been writing to InterPark’s corporate clients. In one letter, dated March 29, Local 27 alleges that many full-time InterPark workers earn less than $16,000 per year, a figure below the poverty line. The union included a poster featuring employees in which it claimed that “InterPark workers speak for themselves about their struggle for justice.”

Several days later, InterPark penned its own letter to clients, claiming its wage and benefit package is substantially better than what Local 27 has been able to negotiate at other parking-service companies. The company also alleged that many of the workers depicted in the Local 27 poster are either “no longer with [InterPark], or are displeased with the use of their pictures in this manner.”

There’s little tangible evidence that the war of letters has had any effect—pro or con—on InterPark’s clients, but both sides seem to realize that politeness counts in their presentation. Both letters end on the same note, excusing themselves for any inconvenience caused by the current dispute and urging clients to call either side directly to get the right information. CP