The Grand Héctor

By Enrique Lopetegui

[email protected]

On July 17, laundry workers, housekeepers, bellboys and other employees at the San Antonio Grand Hyatt Regency Hotel were scheduled to vote whether to unionize, but the vote was canceled after a “union buster” told them, the workers said, “If you vote to become a union, you might lose your job and benefits at the Hyatt.”

“We canceled it due to the aggressive tactics of the hotel management,” Daniel Ovalle, houseman at the Grand Hyatt's housekeeping department, told the Current during a meeting at a shop in Main Plaza. “They brought in a union buster named Héctor Flores, from California, to intimidate the workers and make them side with the hotel.”

Other tactics, according to Ovalle, included “captive audience meetings with `all` department managers and their employees, telling them lies about the union and scaring them off.”

The organizers were worried the tactics were successful and Hyatt had scared enough workers that they might lose the vote, and Hyatt could claim that “they had the chance, and they voted no union,” according to Ovalle.

“But that's not the case,” Ovalle said. “We decided to cancel the vote because we felt it was going to be a corrupted vote. If you bring a union buster to scare the living daylights out of the housekeepers and other departments, that's going to affect your vote.”

According to Ovalle, “Héctor” spent “almost a whole month” at the hotel before the July 17 vote.

“Over 60 percent `of the workers` signed for the union back in February,” said Jay Mehta, an organizer from Unite Here, which represents hotel workers nationwide. “But then they got scared with threats of losing their jobs if they voted for the union, which is illegal to do, but they do it anyway.”

So, who is Héctor Flores?

“He looks like an average, run-of-the-mill guyâ?¦ If you met him on the street, you wouldn't be like, â??Wow, this guy is an absolute scumbag,' ” said Gabriel Morales, a Hyatt worker who was fired September 1 for, he says, “being late two minutes to a mandatory meeting on my day off.”

“We've never been penalized before for that; the real reason is that I'm a very outspoken leader in the room service department,” he told the Current over the phone.

Another source told the Current that “Mayor Julián Castro has met with some of us, and he said he understands the worker's concerns, that he supports labor and labor supported him during the election, but that he can't piss off the hotels.”

“The Mayor doesn't recall meeting recently with the workers, so I don't know where you're getting that,” said Jaime Castillo, director of communications for Mayor Castro. “He met with them early on, when he was elected, he doesn't remember exactly when. But in the big scheme of things, this isn't a city issue —— this is between the workers and the hotel. It's not a fight for the Mayor to pick or bait.”

In October, the San Antonio Grand Hyatt service workers will join the Unite Here-sponsored seven-city Hope for Housekeepers campaign, with three events in the city: a 5:30 p.m. “Hope Quilt” decoration and gathering at Fuerza Unida at 710 New Laredo Hwy; a 5 a.m. (yes, a.m.) “Hope for Housekeepers” sewing ceremony at the same location; and a “Hope for Housekeepers” rally and march to City Hall that will begin on October 15 at 4:30 p.m. in front of the San Antonio Grand Hyatt. According to Mehta, housekeepers (mostly women) in seven cities (Boston, LA, Chicago, San Antonio, etc) will make patches for the Hope Quilt, which will be about 80 feet long by 6 feet wide and will be presented to the City Council.

“All we want is a clean, free process `of unionization`,” said Ovalle, who said that Unite Here is “alive and well” inside the Grand Hyatt and the new worker's strategy has a more national approach.

The change of gears, it seems, could not have come at a better time. On September 24, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick announced that he plans to urge state employees to boycott the Hyatt while conducting official state business, unless the hotel chain rehires the almost 100 housekeepers the chain fired in August. The workers claim Hyatt asked them to train their replacements under the pretense that those trainees were “vacation and holiday fill-ins,” as reported by The Boston Globe. The Hyatt denied those claims.

The San Antonio labor dispute between the workers and the Grand Hyatt is not an isolated incident, but part of a larger trend that Business Week called “one of the most successful anti-union wars ever.”

“Private sector union membership now stands at just 7.5 percent,” wrote UC Berkeley and London School of Economics' John Logan in a paper titled U.S. Anti-Union Consultants: A Threat to the Rights of British Workers. “There are now between 50 million and 60 million Americans who say that they want union representation but are unable to get it.”

In another paper written by Logan, The Long, Slow Death of Workplace Democracy at the Chinese Daily News, Logan describes the main players in the Southern California anti-union consulting industry.

“The Burke Groups is just one of a number of consultant firms in Southern California that specialize in counter-organizing campaigns involving immigrant workers,” wrote Logan in the report. “Others include Cruz & Associates, Labor Relations Consultants, Inc., and â?¦ ” drum roll â?¦ “â?¦ Héctor Flores.”

Grand Hyatt workers Ovalle and Sophie Martínez (who works at the Grand Hyatt's convention services department), as well as former employee Morales, told the Current that Flores identified himself simply as “Héctor,” and that the hotel management often met “one-on-one” with the workers to try to discourage their plans for a union vote.

These and other stories of hotel-backed “intimidation” on the part of Flores and hotel management are eerily similar to the ones described by Logan in his reports.

“Consultants not only advise employers on how to conduct an anti-union campaign, but also develop, implement and monitor the campaign,” reads the Long, slow deathâ?¦ report. “They usually work behind the scenes, and train supervisors on how to interrogate, intimidate and terrify employees. They are effectively running the workplace for the duration of the campaign. Consultants use a variety of methods to convey their aggressive anti-union message,” including “impersonal communication mechanisms â?¦ group â??captive audience' meetings (which, in any other walk of life, would be considered a form of unlawful imprisonment), and personal mechanisms, especially one-on-one meetings between supervisors and employees. While consultant campaigns have become significantly more sophisticated in recent years, their fundamental tactics have remained remarkably stable since the 1970s. The most significant innovations in recent years include the greater use of information technology (anti-union videos, DVDs and websites) and the greater diversity of consultant personnel.”

But is this the same Héctor Flores we're talking about? They're both from LA, and neither of them seem to be too much into unions. The workers found some pics of him, but they're not too sure he's the same guy. So the Current called the Hombre Grande at the Grand Hyatt.

“If you'd like to give me a phone number, I'd like to call you back. I don't know who you are,” said Grand Hyatt general manager Tom Netting when the Current asked him about Flores. “I'll check and see â?¦ on this â?¦ as far as responding to you, and thank you for the call.”

Fifteen minutes later, Netting called back.

“Any information on anyone working for the hotel in any capacity is confidential between us and that individual,” said Netting.

But the Current didn't ask about “anyone who works for the hotel,” but aboutâ?¦

“I said anyone who works for the hotel,” Netting interrupted. “That's my response.”

So Héctor Flores works for Hyatt?

“No â?¦ Anyone that works for our hotel in any capacity, that information is confidential. And that's my response in general.”

Netting asked about our story, and the Current told him it was about “the Hyatt, the workers, and Héctor Flores.” Unfortunately, that was all we could say, because all of our questions had to do with people who work or might work there, and we, corporate-minded bunch that we are, wouldn't dare violate the company's policy. His rules, not ours. But, hey, whenever he feels like bending the rules a little bit, he has our number, and God knows we have lots of questions.

The Current has reason to believe that Héctor Flores is the same Héctor Flores who runs Flores Labor Management, Inc., in Anaheim, California. A phone message left on Saturday was not immediately returned.

To be involved in a labor dispute in the middle of an economic downturn is hard but, despite the July vote cancellation, the workers aren't slowing down.

“In my department we were all for it, and we felt we should've voted,” said Martínez. “Now we're still in the struggle, and hopefully when we finally vote it'll be for a stronger union.”

“I know it's risky, but I want to be here for this fight,” said Ovalle. “We're fighting for a better standard of living, better health care, better working conditions. That's worth fighting for.”

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