Feast and Famine Tom Stabile

Work as an on-call hotel banquet waiter has never been a pot of gold for Tom O'Rourke. Sure, in the frenzy of the D.C. fall fund-raising season, O'Rourke has raked in as much as $800 a week. But when heat and humidity turn Washington into the Big Easy, O'Rourke barely scrapes together $100 a week.

Until late last year, O'Rourke received his waitering assignments from the Hotel Industry Service Corporation (HISC), a hotel industry-run organization that doled out banquet jobs to approximately 175 workers belonging to Local 25 of the Hotel Employees/Restaurant Employees union. When hotels with large banquet facilities such as the Omni Shoreham and the Washington Hilton placed an urgent call for help, HISC assigned the next available banquet waiters on its list.

Until Jan. 1, that is, when the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C., dissolved the 15-year-old organization. The hotels replaced HISC with their own on-call rotation, squeezing 50 HISC members, including O'Rourke, off the list. The move left a third of Local 25's dues-paying waiters to greet the New Year with a tide of anxiety and a huge drop in income. O'Rourke says he's worked a mere handful of jobs since January, down 80 percent from last year.

O'Rourke believes that when the hotels turned against HISC, his own union—Local 25—failed to defend him. He and his fellow banquet workers shut out from the new rotation aired their grievances at a Jan. 21 demonstration. "We question what they're really trying to organize when they can't defend already organized workers," says O'Rourke. The protest took place in front of Local 25, not the hotel association.

Emily Vetter, the hotel association's executive director, says a lack of interest among local hotels prompted the de facto layoffs. "There's not enough work for 200 people on this list anymore," says Vetter, adding that in the last five years the number of participating hotels has dropped from 15 to five.

But the hotels didn't turn out the lights, lock the door, and chuck the key. They killed the nonprofit HISC as an entity but kept the booking operation intact. The new operation works out of the same Adams Morgan office.

O'Rourke says disbanding HISC will save money for the hotel industry because it will no longer have to ante up health and pension benefits for the 50 waiters dropped from rotation. The move also enables the hotels to essentially lay off workers without calling it such, thereby sidestepping contract complications. "The work has not diminished," O'Rourke contends. "The five hotels remaining on the list—they're still busy." Of course, that's just good business, he notes.

What pisses him off is his union's passivity.

Long before HISC's dissolution, O'Rourke and other union activists lobbied Local 25 head John Boardman to wrest control of HISC from the hotels. Boardman rejected the notion. "I remember Boardman saying very clearly, 'Get this in your heads—there will not be a hiring hall run by [Local 25],'" says O'Rourke.

Boardman insists that Local 25 did all it could for its HISC members. "What you need to understand is that HISC was a business that closed," he says. "We had no control over HISC. We didn't run it." In fact, Boardman claims the hotels agreed to run the new 125-waiter list on a rotation basis only after being pressured by the union.

O'Rourke and co-agitator Juan Allendes have found no evidence of hardball negotiations between Local 25 and the hotels. Officially shutting down HISC relieved the union of an estimated monthly outlay of $1,400 to cover HISC's rent, they say (the hotels now pay the rent). And the closing rid Local 25 of two big headaches—them. Both O'Rourke and Allendes had mounted challenges to Boardman's leadership last year.

"The fact that we were dissidents, that we opposed what he was doing, the way he behaved, was a factor," says O'Rourke. He believes it's more than an uncanny coincidence that he and Allendes weren't selected for the new on-call rotation. (They are summoned to work banquets only when on-call waiters aren't available.)

O'Rourke and Allendes say they are raising funds to hire a lawyer and have contacted the National Labor Relations Board. They say they're really hoping for a settlement that won't cost much more time and effort.

"We understand that the union needs...the hotels," laments Allendes. "But we are part of the union, too. We are in limbo." CP

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