Service Unions Try for Patterns

A few unions are forcing new types of pattern bargaining onto the table. While service sector unions usually have limited themselves to setting standards within local labor markets, UNITE HERE is using its Hotel Workers Rising campaign to push for a sort of pattern in the major chains it has organized.

This year UNITE HERE will bargain for 50,000 hotel workers, working to create more uniformity across regional labor markets and pulling workers closer to the relatively high citywide standards it has set in strongholds like Las Vegas, San Francisco, and New York.

The union’s strategy is to line up contract expirations to maximize its leverage and extend new organizing hand in hand with lifting contract standards.

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The Service Employees (SEIU) are employing a different method to standardize conditions: pre-negotiated “template” agreements in industries from food service to security guards to nursing homes. The major elements of these contracts are bargained with employers in advance, often as part of a neutrality agreement that permits the union to sign up workers.

Membership growth and contract uniformity have come at a heavy price—locking workers into second-tier standards, as UNITE HERE charges SEIU has done with food-service workers in New York City (see Labor Notes, September 2009). SEIU counters that workers need a foot in the door and are better off with a union than without.

Disagreements over this model of organizing non-union nursing homes fueled the rift between SEIU’s top leaders and the dissident United Healthcare Workers-West in California, contributing to the eventual trusteeship of the union’s third-largest local and giving rise to the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

At present, however, union density in many parts of the service sector is so low that the idea of national pattern bargaining remains, at best, a long-term wish. According to its own figures, UNITE HERE has only 19 percent of full-service hotel workers under contract.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #371, February 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.