Hotel unions push for better wages – or no new hotels – in Alexandria

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Ismail Ahmed had spent last fall canvassing Democratic candidates in Alexandria, but now he was speaking out against them.

Lawmakers in this DC suburb were about to vote on a major waterfront redevelopment project, and Ahmed wanted them to make sure the service jobs at the site would pay way better than the part-time gig of $11 an hour as a hotel shuttle driver which he left in 2020.

With that goal looking increasingly tenuous, the 39-year-old Ethiopian immigrant gave his final speech at a city council meeting earlier this month: “We don’t have well-paying jobs in Alexandria,” he said. he declared. And if an on-site hotel couldn’t offer high salaries, city lawmakers would have to ban any type of hotel.

That’s the unusual message his union, Unite Here, pushed as it tried to make inroads into local politics in Northern Virginia – the most liberal pocket of a state long known for its hostility to the organized work.

Faced with deadlock in a divided General Assembly, Ahmed and other union members instead turned to the all-democratic Alexandria City Council, lobbying lawmakers to demand higher wages in new hotels that pop up in their city – or to prevent those hotels from popping up at all.

Forgotten tip workers like hotel maids and airport skycaps have already been hit hard by a cashless economy. Then came the pandemic.

For an aggressive union that is putting more of its resources south of the Potomac River, this is a dramatic shift in strategy — one intended to benefit from booming development in northern Virginia.

And for the city of Alexandria lawmakers, all proud liberals who molded themselves into champions of organized labor, it was one that put them in the awkward position of arguing with a union over what, exactly, the city ​​can do.

“They want us to set up scenarios where unionization can be guaranteed, and that’s tough,” Mayor Justin Wilson (D) said. “This is brand new to everyone. Most jurisdictions in Northern Virginia will tell you that [greater involvement] is a positive point, but it is not without speed bumps and tensions at times.

Twice this year, Unite Here has lobbied Wilson and the council on major projects: first, a luxury hotel in the heart of the city’s old town, then earlier this month on the former power station coal-fired GenOn, which is being redeveloped into a mixed complex. use the arts district which could include a hotel.

As city lawmakers insisted they could not legally impose labor standards on developers through land use approvals, the union called on the council to delay votes — or to vote no.

“Policymakers must use their discretion to get better deals for their communities,” said Paul Schwalb, executive secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 25, which represents workers at DC-area hotels, restaurants and casinos. “If certain conditions aren’t met, they shouldn’t go ahead with development.”

Yet both efforts were still successful, indicating the uphill battle the union faces in Northern Virginia. Even in the context of a thriving labor movement, in a solidly democratic region that has only become muddled, he faces the realities of a state where organized labor has never had much of a place at the table. .

When Democrats took control of the General Assembly in 2019, they made it a priority to undermine Virginia’s anti-working class reputation.

State lawmakers passed an effective wage provision, which requires construction workers on any major public works project to be paid at rates competitive with the private sector, and gave local governments like that of ‘Alexandria the opportunity to do the same.

For the first time in nearly half a century, localities also gained the ability to recognize collective bargaining rights for their public sector employees, such as teachers, police officers and firefighters. Alexandria raced to become the first locality in the Commonwealth to opt into the practice.

All the while, amid a nationwide wave of union organizing, elected officials in Alexandria have repeatedly championed unions and organizing efforts: at three nearby Starbucks stores; for janitors in city schools; on a new graduate campus coming to the city; and even among the city’s public bus operators.

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These shifting tides prompted Unite Here to get involved as well. While the union had typically focused on lobbying in DC or Annapolis, members joined Democrats’ efforts to raise the minimum wage in the state at $15 an hour. Ahead of competitive statewide elections last fall, the group hired 200 fired hotel workers, including Ahmed, to work as canvassers for the Democratic ticket.

In a sense, the effort was to dedicate resources closer to its members. Of approximately 13,000 Unite Here members in the DC area, around 8,000 live in Northern Virginia – although far fewer actually work there.

Schwalb, the local’s executive secretary, acknowledged that his group was also growing in the area because of the construction boom in Northern Virginia.

“We think that’s where hotel development is going to happen,” he said. “In order to protect the contract that our members have, we have to make sure that we increase our market share.”

Only four hotels in northern Virginia are unionized. In addition to the two Alexandria projects, Unite Here organizers have begun considering possible hotels at a Brookfield property near Amazon’s new headquarters in Arlington County and at an indoor ski resort in Lorton. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

After Republicans took control of the Governor’s Mansion and the state House of Delegates last fall, unions lost hope of continuing to push for liberal labor legislation in Richmond. This is how Unite Here turned to the elected officials of Alexandria.

What can officials in Alexandria really do?

That’s how Ahmed ended up going door-to-door in the Old City on a sunny Saturday this spring, urging other Alexandria residents to join him in pushing back against a piece of advice that insisted that his hands were tied.

“They promise to be on the side of immigrants,” he told a man standing outside a brick row house in the Old Town. “They said they would create well-paying jobs and affordable housing.

But so far, he said, those promises had not been met: As plans for the luxurious Heron Hotel in the Old City were put to a vote in January, council members rejected the request. of Unite Here to demand a “labour peace agreement”, which would make it easier for workers to organize.

Wilson, the mayor, wondered if these additional standards would make the project no longer economically viable. “Yes, we want to create jobs and we want to create good jobs that support families in our community,” he said, “but you can’t push that envelope so far that nothing happens.”

Stephanie Landrum, president and CEO of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, said the union’s subsequent demand – to reject the investment of city money in the hotel entirely – ignored the development’s many benefits: it would generate tax revenue, require few municipal services, and create some of the best paying hotel jobs in Alexandria.

He passed the 4-3 advice – much to the chagrin of organizers, who said these part-time jobs would always make it difficult to pay rent in an expensive city like Alexandria.

That’s how Ahmed went door to door later in the spring, getting his message across. A father-of-two, he struggled to pay rent on his two-bedroom apartment in the city’s West End, while juggling a few low-paying part-time gigs as a parking attendant and driving for Uber Eats .

“I want to work where I live in Alexandria,” he told a door. “The minimum wage is too low, and we need an opportunity to have jobs that have enough money.”

This time, Unite Here was organized around another major project that had passed through the development pipeline at the board. Developer Hilco Redevelopment Partners was looking to transform a former power station in Old Town North, seeking zoning changes that could allow for the construction of a 300-bed hotel.

Unite Here has joined environmental groups and housing advocates to pressure Alexandria council members to demand more from the developer: More deeply affordable housing units. Higher performance targets for energy efficiency. Apprenticeship programs and higher wages, closer to the $25 an hour rate at unionized DC hotels

Schwalb of Unite Here noted that Boston city lawmakers included unions in discussions on a similar Hilco project from the start, which resulted in a strong set of labor standards.

But since no money from Alexandria was used in this case, the elect insisted that they had less leverage. The city council referred to a Virginia law that prohibits lawmakers from imposing land use requirements that would negatively impact a developer’s hiring practices or operations. Hilco did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A coal-fired power plant was shut down for almost a decade. Hundreds of residents are considering its future.

Council approved the zoning changes in a 6-to-1 vote on July 5. said Councilman Canek Aguirre (D), who voted “yes.”

With more hotels likely to be built soon, Unite Here organizers said they plan to continue lobbying in Alexandria and deeper in northern Virginia.

But the tensions so far in Alexandria point to the work they say remains to be done — even and especially in a liberal city that has otherwise supported organized labor.

“These City Council people want to do the right thing,” said Slaiman, of the Alexandria Democrats Labor caucus. “We just have to help them prepare to do the right thing.”

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