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Hilton hotel workers vote to support strike

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Hilton Hawaiian Village union employees, working without a contract since June, have voted overwhelmingly to support a strike.

About 70 percent of Hilton workers represented by Unite Here Local 5 turned out to vote yesterday and 95 percent of them agreed that negotiators could call for a strike if bargaining breaks down, said Local 5 spokesman Cade Watanabe. About 1,400 unionized workers work at the Hilton in Waikiki.

The vote is part of the national Hotel Workers Rising campaign that links union workers in about 15 states, Watanabe said. Unionized workers in Chicago hotels overwhelmingly approved a strike vote in August and workers in San Francisco also took a strike vote yesterday, he said.

"(The vote) reflects the sentiment of working families in this community," Watanabe said. "We won’t let large corporate, mainland owners ruin our jobs like they did our economy."

Jerry Gibson, area vice president for Hilton Hawaii, described the vote as "a common union tactic designed to attract media attention" and said that it does not mean that workers will strike.

But longtime Hilton employee Kaleo Aarona, who has worked as a reservations agent for the past 23 years, said she and other workers are serious about supporting a strike.

"I’m a mother of six so it’s really important for me to have good-paying jobs," Aarona said. "I want my children to be able to raise their families here, too."

Aarona said Hilton’s use of out-of-state call centers has cut jobs. In 2002, Aarona said Hilton laid off about 18 reservation agents when it moved duties to California. About a month ago, the company opened up another call center in the Philippines, she said.

Gibson said Hilton wants to return to the bargaining table to negotiate a long-term contract.

"Union tactics such as strikes and demonstrations are harmful to employees, to the hospitality industry and to the state of Hawaii," Gibson said. "Our hospitality industry has suffered and continues to suffer from the recession. We should be working together to encourage business to start returning to our state, not taking actions that sends even more business away."

Local 5 represents some 6,000 Hawaii hotel workers at Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott and Starwood branded properties. Cerberus Partners LP, a New York investment firm, has owned the majority stake in Starwood’s Kyo-ya Hotels & LLP since 2004. Similarly, Hilton is owned by Blackstone Group, one of the nation’s largest private equity firms, and the Hyatt Regency Waikiki and Waikiki Marriott are owned by subsidiaries of Goldman Sachs.

The strike vote at Hilton is just the latest in a string of actions by the hotel workers union. While Local 5 and the hotel owners agreed to a four-year contract in 2006 that included wage increases of up to $2.40 an hour for nontipped employees, as well as improved housekeeping workload standards and continued family medical benefits, this year’s efforts are more strained.

In July, union demonstrators and their supporters were arrested during a sit-down in front of the Hyatt Regency Beach Resort & Spa that disrupted traffic on Kalakaua Avenue in front of Waikiki Beach. And, less than two weeks ago, Hyatt workers said they went on a one-day strike for better wages, conditions and benefits.

Hawaii’s union hotel workers point to improved occupancy as a reason to protect jobs, beef up staffing levels and at least maintain wages and benefits, but hoteliers are crying poor.

"Business has gotten better in Waikiki, but we are so far from the levels in 2006 and 2007 that it will take years to recover," said Keith Vieira, senior vice president and director of operations for Starwood Hotels & Resorts in Hawaii and French Polynesia.


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