Checking In? First Pass The Picket Line

The group that split from the AFL-CIO is behind a massive bid to recruit hotel staff

If you're thinking about staying at a Hilton this year, brace yourself for possible strikes and noisy demonstrators out front. On Feb. 15 the hotel workers' union plans to kick off a national campaign aimed at signing up tens of thousands of employees across the country at Hilton Hotels Corp. (HLT ) and Starwood Hotel & Resorts Worldwide Inc. (HOT ), which owns the Sheraton, Westin, and four other chains.

The union, UNITE HERE, has lined up big names to publicize its cause. Actor Danny Glover, the son of two union activists, and former Senator John Edwards, whose father worked in a mill, will join hotel workers for a four-city publicity tour. They'll be backed by rallies in 120 cities over the next several months aimed at pressuring the chains to allow their U.S. workers to unionize.

They're in for a tough fight. "We don't think this is a national bargaining issue," says Joseph A. McInerney, CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Assn., who is speaking for both Hilton and Starwood. The companies won't stand idly by while the unions attempt to organize their employees.

The hotel campaign marks the first major push by Change to Win, the new labor federation that broke away from the AFL-CIO last summer. The 5.4 million-member group, which includes the Teamsters as well as UNITE HERE, wants to stanch labor's decline by mounting national recruiting drives involving entire industries. "We're challenging our industry to make service jobs middle class," says John W. Wilhelm, president of UNITE HERE's hospitality division, which represents 90,000 of the 500,000 employees at full-service U.S. hotels. Nationally, nonunion hotel housekeepers earn an average of $8.67 an hour, vs. $13 for those in the union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Over the past several years, UNITE HERE has been aligning the expiration dates of its contracts in major cities so they renew this year. As a result it can mount simultaneous strikes in Hilton and Starwood's most lucrative markets, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and San Francisco.

The seven Change to Win unions vow to turn out their members for demonstrations and rally politicians and religious and civic leaders to their cause. Business travelers don't have a direct stake in this fight. But if the new labor federation comes out firing with both barrels as it has threatened to do, they could get caught in the middle.

By Aaron Bernstein

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.