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Negotiations, Hired-Thug Style

A union protest leads to allegations of assault as workers continue to strike at local Holiday Inn

by Ali Hibbs on August 18, 2010

Ongoing hostilities escalated into violence this Saturday at the Holiday Inn Express in Latham when a private security guard hired by hotel management allegedly took a bullhorn from a picketer marching in front of the building, striking her in the face and causing considerable damage to her wrist.

This incident represents the latest in a saga that has lasted more than a year and a half, since February 2009 when several employees began to organize a union for all hotel employees in an effort to secure better working conditions. The ensuing termination of the would-be organizers, as well as the perceived union-busting tactics of the hotel owner, Jim Morrell, precipitated a contentious battle of wills between the hotel and local union organizers and supporters.

According to Rev. Mike Roberts, director of Local 471, the private security guards were hired by the hotel management after repeated attempts to induce Colonie Police to put an end to the picketing, and especially the use of a bullhorn, failed.

Last month, in responding to a call from the hotel, local police initially put Roberts in handcuffs but then decided that the demonstrators were within their First Amendment rights as long as they respected the noise ordinance and refrained from using the bullhorn between the hours of 10 PM and 7 AM. Roberts was released and has continued to picket—and to use the bullhorn.

On Saturday night, when Pattie Wilcox, mother of two of the terminated employees, showed up to picket, she and others found three strange men waiting for them.

“We got our stuff,” she recalled. “And the minute we hit the part where we walk back and forth, their exact words were, ‘Cross this line, and I’ll snap your fucking neck.’ They were just awful, calling us white trash and lowlifes, telling us we had already lost. One guy was walking around, flashing a badge and claiming to be the police. ‘Don’t bother calling the police,’ he said.”

Wilcox said that she had raised the bullhorn with her right hand and began to chant when one of the men forcibly took it from her.

“I couldn’t really see around the bullhorn,” she said. “But this guy came up to me and snatched it out of my hand. He came down across my face and damaged tendons in my hand. It really scared me, and I don’t scare that easily. We were all scared.”

Sean Terry, a private security guard from Inner City Security Services and 31-year-old Latham resident, was arrested and charged with felony larceny. (According to the Colonie Police, the theft of anything from someone’s person, regardless of the value of the stolen article, is a felony.) Terry, along with the two other men, was ostensibly hired by hotel management with the intent to intimidate demonstrators as they marched in front of the building. “I want to say it’s disappointing, but we shouldn’t be surprised,” said Roberts.

No assault charges have been filed yet, but Wilcox says that she has seen her doctor and intends to do so. “My doctor said it was definitely assault,” she said. “Apparently he caused me to have carpal tunnel, which is actually pretty rare.” Reading from the doctor’s report, she continued, “Symptoms consistent with carpal tunnel syndrome that came on acutely after the injury, inflammation around the median nerve.”

Attempts to reach Tod Hanlon, manager of the hotel, were unsuccessful, as have been multiple attempts to reach owner Jim Morrell.

“We’ve been on strike for over a year, and I go out there in support of my daughters, they went on strike because they wanted a fair place to work. Morrell has been getting more aggressive, but we’re not going to let it stop us. We were out there on Sunday night. We just want Morrell to sign a fair campaign pledge so that there can be a fair [union] election.”

Morrell actually agreed to a settlement more than a year ago, then reneged and skirted the agreement by replacing hotel management and claiming that the new regime was not responsible for honoring agreements made under the old one.

The length and severity of this fight, many union activists say, is symptomatic of bigger problems within the National Labor Relations Board. Roberts, local organizer Richard Bensinger and others believe that the National Labor Relations Act, which is enforced by the NLRB, is “antiquated and impotent,” allowing for cases to be drawn out and lacking sufficient penalties for offending employers.

Barney Horowitz, Albany representative for the NLRB, said that a number of charges against the hotel and new management company had been withdrawn and subsequently refiled and now await further investigation. He confirmed that the terminated workers had received some back pay, but clarified that that money was awarded for only the relatively few days that fell between the terminations on Feb. 4, 2009, and the installation of the new management company on Feb. 22, 2009.

Wilcox also voiced frustration with the NLRB. “Half the stuff they rule on doesn’t make sense. I really feel they’re more for the employer than the employee.”