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Governor threatens a Hyatt boycott

Hotelier says he’s putting jobs at risk

By Katie Johnston Chase and Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / September 24, 2009

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Governor Deval Patrick said yesterday that he plans to direct Massachusetts employees to boycott Hyatt hotels when conducting state business unless the chain rehires the nearly 100 housekeepers it fired last month.

Patrick wrote to Hyatt Hotels Corp.’s chief executive, Mark S. Hoplamazian, on Tuesday, threatening the boycott - his third attempt in a week to convince the company to reverse its decision to replace the housekeepers at three Boston-area Hyatt hotels with lower-wage workers from a Georgia staffing firm.

“I understand first-hand how difficult it is to manage through the current economic challenges without compounding the disruptions the times have caused,’’ Patrick wrote. “But surely there is some way to retain the jobs for your housekeeping staffs, as other hotels have done, and to work with them to help the company meet its current challenges, rather than tossing them out unceremoniously to fend for themselves while the people they trained take their jobs at barely livable wages.’’

In response, Hyatt Hotels released a statement condemning the governor’s threat of a boycott.

The action “directly threatens the 600 associates who work in Hyatt properties and who live and work in Massachusetts at a time when businesses and individuals are cutting back on travel during the worst economic period we have seen in decades,’’ said Phil Stamm, general manager of Hyatt Regency Boston. “We do not understand why the governor is putting more Massachusetts jobs at risk instead of working with us to find jobs for employees affected by the realities of these unprecedented economic challenges.’’

The chain said it created a task force to help the dismissed housekeepers find new jobs, offered retraining assistance, and extended their health care coverage for three months.

A sitting governor threatening to boycott a private company is unusual, and perhaps unprecedented, said some political specialists. Patrick’s actions have some wondering whether his show of support for the housekeepers is a bid to boost to his reelection effort, and others questioning whether government should interfere with the private sector.

The Hyatt Regency Boston, the Hyatt Regency Cambridge, and the Hyatt Harborside fired 98 housekeepers on Aug. 31, replacing them with $8-an-hour employees from Hospitality Staffing Solutions. Many had been cleaning rooms at the chain’s hotels for more than 20 years and earned about $15 an hour.

Some of the housekeepers said they were asked to train their replacements and were assured that the crews were only vacation and holiday fill-ins. The cleaning company and Hyatt deny these claims, with Hyatt saying the changes were neither sudden nor secretive.

The firings prompted an outpouring of anger. Other politicians and business owners have also called for a boycott of the chain. The National Employment Lawyers Association canceled its contract with the Hyatt Regency Boston and is searching for another Boston hotel to host its October seminar.

“There’s no question that the story about what happened to the Hyatt workers was made public in a way that, to say the least, was unusual - splashed across the front page of the morning newspaper. While perhaps these kinds of actions were not unique to Hyatt, certainly it was a . . . disturbing portrait of corporate behavior,’’ said Paul Watanabe, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. “Consequently, I believe the governor as well as many others were moved to respond.’’

The first-term governor is involved in a hotly contested race for reelection, running against two Republicans - former insurance executive Charles Baker and convenience store owner Christy Mihos - as well as state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill. Only Baker commented last night, issuing a statement saying that, unlike Patrick, he would “be much more focused on actively finding the workers new jobs than on Hyatt.’’

“It’s unlikely Governor Patrick’s approach will lead to their getting a paycheck soon, which is the most important consideration,’’ Baker’s statement said.

Patrick’s press secretary, Kyle Sullivan, said by e-mail yesterday that Patrick’s decision was about “standing with these workers against Hyatt’s unfair actions,’’ not about hurting the company’s bottom line. The state does about tens of thousands of business with the Hyatt each year, Sullivan said. Sullivan also said the state has faced difficult decisions about staffing, noting that 1,400 state positions have been eliminated since last October through layoffs, attrition, and other reductions. Of the Hyatt decision, Sullivan said Patrick’s “concern is with the abrupt manner that these workers were discharged and their replacement with lower paid workers.’’

David Tuerck, executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute, a think tank at Suffolk University, said he could not recall when a sitting governor had become involved in a private-sector labor dispute.

Tuerck said the move seemed designed to appeal to organized labor, noting that Patrick has recently struggled to improve his image among voters. Tuerck also said he thought Patrick showed political courage earlier this year by trying to replace unionized police officers with less-expensive civilian flaggers at state road construction details.

Liam Day, a spokesman for the Pioneer Institute, said Patrick’s show of sympathy could reenergize his core supporters in the labor movement, who may “have been feeling somewhat disillusioned over the last year.’’

“Is it a dangerous precedent? Yes, it probably is,’’ Day said. “Is he wrong to do it is another matter. It’s not always bad to set a dangerous precedent, but you better make sure you’re picking the right battles and are doing it for the right reason.’’

Union workers praised Patrick’s efforts, though the housekeepers were not unionized. “I think we should all heed the governor’s call to action,’’ said Janice Loux, president of Unite Here Local 26, which represents hotel workers and organized a rally last week.

In addition to the threatened boycott, Patrick hosted a meeting last night with 30 fired Hyatt workers and union leaders. The workers gave tearful accounts of how they feel about Hyatt’s denial that they were told they were training workers to fill in during vacations and holidays.

Gisela Romero, a former housekeeper at the Hyatt Harborside, said, “We are not liars.’’

After the meeting, Patrick addressed the state’s staff reductions and how they differed from the Hyatt’s. “We haven’t had our workers training their replacements at a fraction of the wage rate,’’ he said.

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com; Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.

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