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Sheraton Ottawa is Workers’ Heartbreak Hotel

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Section: Labour Geography: Ontario ottawa Topics: labour, Sheraton Ottawa, UNITE HERE

October 3, 2007

Sheraton Ottawa is Workers’ Heartbreak Hotel

Sheraton Ottawa Launch First Strike at Hotel in 20 Years

by Kevin Skerrett

Sheraton workers picket the downtown Ottawa Hotel. [cc 2.0] Photo: Kurt Tang/Creative Commons

On the afternoon of Monday, September 17, a group of 80 workers at the Sheraton Ottawa Hotel read through a final contract offer from their employer – and voted it down. The result of the vote was the launch of their first strike at the hotel in 20 years.

After working without a contract since July 1, the members of the Hospitality and Service Trade Union Local 261 (affiliated with UNITE HERE) had finally reached their breaking point. The ownership of their hotel changed hands in 1993, and was ultimately assumed by an international corporate goliath based in Hong Kong. According to the union, this change in ownership has been a disaster for the hotel’s workers.

“It used to be that the employer provided a decent group benefits package, and paid the premiums. Ever since that change in ownership, the employer has been passing most of the cost increases – averaging 6 per cent to 8 per cent per year – on to the workers,” says Colleen O’Connor, a representative of the union who worked at the hotel for 16 years before joining Local 261’s full-time staff a few years ago. “They show no respect for their employees.”

While this dispute is about health care benefits, it is also about what has recently happened to the labour relations inside the workplace. According to O’Connor, prior to the hotel’s ownership change, there were about 165 workers – room attendants, maintenance workers, cooks, valets, etc. – servicing the 236-room hotel. Years of work speed-ups and job cuts have reduced this low-wage workforce to about 80 workers, all expected to carry a growing list of duties.

Flora Panagiotopoulos is a room attendant at the hotel with 30 years of service, and she is angry. “Every time the cost of our benefits goes up, they have been making us pay. Our wage increases are not enough to keep up with these costs,” she says. “We work hard, and the work is stressful. Our guests appreciate our work, and the hotel has even won awards for the quality of service that we provide. But it’s the management that reaps the rewards - we get stuck with the bill for our health care benefits.”

The hotel’s general manager, Otto Heberlein, has claimed that management’s final offer to the union was “comparable to other settlements in the industry” and included “increases to employee benefits.” Union members point out that the “increases” Heberlein claims to have offered would cover less than one-third of the increases of the total benefits costs, while the remainder has been downloaded onto workers. They say that while the industry average for the employer share of benefits costs is about 85 per cent, the Sheraton Ottawa is now down to 55 per cent and in rapid decline.

Heberlein is working on behalf of the hotel’s ultimate owner, Keck Seng Investments, an enormous finance and real estate conglomerate which reported over $628 million US in revenues in 2006. In the pages of the Ottawa Business Journal, Heberlein has admitted to hiring a scab outfit (an “outside company”) to perform cleaning services at the hotel during the strike. Managers are attempting to fulfill other regular duties normally performed by the union members. Guests who choose to cross the union’s picket line can expect many problems resulting from the scab cleaners and overstretched managers.

The striking workers are asking all supporters to cancel any and all bookings with the scab-operated Sheraton Ottawa Hotel until they reach a fair settlement of this dispute.

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Comments

All the coglomorates are

All the coglomorates are only answerable to their
share holders.So to impress the share holders the top management will reduce costs by outsourcing,job-cuts and withholding benefits to employees.All the tall talk of being
fair to all stake holders including employees is a ploy
to create images as the most benevolent employer.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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