It has been a little more than a year since four employees of the Holiday Inn Express in Latham were fired, allegedly for spearheading a campaign to unionize in an attempt to secure better working conditions and wages. These terminations ignited a battle between local union activists and the owner of the hotel, Jim Morrell. According to union and political leaders, Morrell’s obstructive behavior has not only been illegal and immoral, but also represents the most appalling union- busting tactics that New York has seen in almost a century.
“There are laws that prohibit the company from behaving a certain way during an organizing campaign, and the company broke those laws,” said Nicki Weiner, business agent for Local 471, the local branch of the Rochester Regional Joint Board of Workers United. “They spied on the union activists; they obviously illegally fired people. They interrogated employees that were known union activists. There’s a whole laundry list.”
The employees met with the director of Local 471, the Rev. Mike Roberts, before presenting their letter of intent to organize to the hotel’s management. Days later, on April 23 and 24, 2009, Becky Wallis, Molly Anastasio and Craig Prusky were fired. A fourth employee, Tiffany Wheeler, was fired shortly thereafter. Following the terminations, the workers filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board.
According to union leaders, the company began engaging in an intimidating anti-union campaign among the remaining employees and conducted a fraudulent union election in which ballots were impounded and the fired workers were denied the right to vote.
“The union’s goal from the start has been to foster ethical standards for fair union elections,” said Richard Bensinger, director of organizing for the national AFL-CIO. “Jim Morrell has, time after time, rejected and corrupted the election process. However, like many bullies, Mr. Morrell underestimated the workers he employs.”
Facing a preponderance of evidence and community backlash, Morrell opted to settle just before the NLRB announced its decision. The settlement required that the erstwhile employees be reinstated to their original jobs at their original pay.
“That’s just law,” said Roberts. “The settlement was also that the company would agree to a quick rerun election. The reason that’s important is because it gives the company less time to bring in a consultant to expose the workers to that anti-union campaign all over again.”
While the expelled employees were not given their jobs back immediately, Roberts said that he urged patience. “We were all hopeful that that they just needed a little time to get their house in order, clear their schedules and get the people their jobs back.”
Instead, on Feb. 22 of this year, the workers were called in for a meeting where they were informed that the hotel was under new management and that they were not bound by agreements made under the old regime. The stunned workers were told that they would not be reinstated and that they could reapply if they chose to do so.
“I talked to the new manager and explained that we expected him to honor the settlement that Morrell had just signed with the board. He explained to me that his position was that he is not bound by Morrell’s settlement,” Roberts said. “Morrell is still the owner. They’re still under the same ownership.”
Morrell’s office has not returned repeated calls from Metroland.
Roberts is less confident that the board will rule in their favor this time. “They’re telling us that they may have to buy the company’s argument that this is a different management company and therefore not liable for the sins of the past. If that’s going to be their position, we’re going to really have to shift some of the focus of all this to the board itself, because this would have national ramifications. It would be a blueprint for private-sector employers to rattle workers that are trying to form a union, from coast to coast.”
The workers and supporters gather once a week to rally and protest in front of the building. Roberts has expressed a desire to increase presence to two or three days a week, and at the busiest times. “I feel like we need to hit them much harder.”
“Morrell clearly appreciates the lack of penalties in the labor board process as well as his ability to crush the union with brute force. In 35 years of union organizing, and having studied hundreds of organizing campaigns, this is as unethical of an employer response to organizing a union as I have ever seen,” said Bensinger.
According to Barney Horowitz, Albany representative for the NLRB, the most recent charges were filed on March 22. “The investigation pursuant to these charges is just beginning. It’s hard for me to respond while we’re still collecting the facts. The union has filed charges making a certain claim and we are investigating those charges.” Horowitz added that he expected that further charges could be leveled. “We will investigate the extent to which the employers have complied with the settlement that they reached in February.”
Albany County Legislator Bryan Clenehan (D-Albany) said, “The way he had total disregard for his employees right to organize is actually stunning; it’s amazing it happened in 2009. The most recent actions are even more incredible, where he backed away from a deal after months and months of work and picketing by employees. He reached an agreement with them and then just completely disregarded that deal. That was probably the most incredible thing of all. I think the big issue is that he has had a consistent disregard for his employee’s rights to organize, and that’s an absolute right under the federal law and the way that he’s interfered with it has been pretty much unconscionable.”