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NFL players backing hotel workers

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Indianapolis hotel workers, who have been trying to improve their fortunes by organizing unions, now have a powerful ally.

The National Football League Players Association, including a prominent Indianapolis Colts player, are asking three large Indianapolis hotels to let their workers form unions.

Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday and DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFLPA, have sent letters to the chief executive officers of the Hyatt, Starwood, and Host Hotels and Resorts Inc. expressing concern over the treatment of workers in Indianapolis’ non-union hotels.

The letters affirm the NFLPA’s support for hotel workers attempts to organize and state they are among the lowest paid hotel workers in America. The correspondence also said, “We believe that working people deserve living wages, dignity, respect and freedom to organize without employer intimidation.”

The NFLPA, which represents the nearly 1,700 players of the NFL, stated its influence could make an impact on the hotels’ bottom lines: “The NFL Combine in Indianapolis fills many hotel rooms, and we will do business with hotel companies that treat employees with fairness and respect.”

Unite Here, a hospitality workers union representing more than 300,000 people nationwide, released the letters. About 3,000 prospective NFL players come to Indianapolis each February to participate in the NFL Combine, an evaluation camp attended by NFL scouts.

Saturday, who played on both of the Colts Super Bowl teams, is a member of the NFLPA’s executive committee. The letters come after years of controversy surrounding labor disputes at the Westin and Hyatt Regency in downtown Indianapolis, and the Sheraton Keystone Indianapolis, where workers have requested a fair process to choose whether or not to form a union in an environment free of intimidation, declared Unite Here. The union also maintained that management at all three hotels have refused to honor the workers’ request. Moreover, union organizers say, the hotels have subcontracted out hundreds of jobs.

“Most controversially, the Westin banned an award-winning doorman and union supporter, William Selm, from the hotel, after he spoke out against the hotel’s decision to outsource jobs,” stated Unite. “Mr. Saturday’s letter to Starwood CEO Frits van Paashen from the NFLPA makes specific mention of Mr. Selm’s case.”

The hotels, however, deny that workers are being bullied and intimidated from organizing unions.

“Starwood Hotels has always supported our associates’ rights to determine whether to be represented by a union or not,” said Dale McCarty, general manager of the Westin Indianapolis and a spokesman for Sheraton. “Indeed, Starwood has a very high percentage of unionized properties compared to other major national hotel chains and we maintain a positive working relationship with a number of unions, including Unite Here, nationwide. With respect to the situation at the Westin, we believe the best method to determine whether our associates want to unionize and the one that would best reflect true associate sentiments and protect associates’ rights is a secret ballot election managed under long-standing federal legal requirements. We will respect our associates’ decisions to be represented or not and support their right to do so without intimidation.”

Amy Patti, public relations manager for the Chicago-based Hyatt hotel chain, stated, “We have received the letter from the National Football League Players Association and will reach out to them directly to address the questions they have raised. Hyatt strongly believes that attracting great people is the best way we can deliver a quality experience to our guests.

“Our commitment to being a preferred employer is demonstrated by our core values of dignity and respect, and through the competitive wages, benefits, training programs and growth opportunities we offer to all of our associates. We are disappointed that Unite Here, in an aggressive campaign to pursue its own agenda, continues to mislead the public about Hyatt’s commitment to our employees. Hyatt Regency Indianapolis has not made hourly staff reductions during the economic downturn, no full-time associates have lost benefits and we are a wage leader in the market. Hyatt supports its employees’ rights to choose whether they want to be represented by a union in a democratic, secret-ballot process supervised by the appropriate government representatives.”

Selm, the banned hotel doorman, said “I am grateful to Mr. Saturday and the NFL Players Association for standing up for us. The people of Indianapolis have made a huge taxpayer investment in the development of our sports and hospitality industries downtown, but we have yet to see that money trickle down to us in the form of good jobs.” Unite Here added that there are no union hotels in Indianapolis, and hotel workers here are among the country’s lowest paid hospitality laborers. Housekeepers in Indianapolis earn around $7.50 an hour, as compared to $14.60 an hour for housekeepers in Chicago working for the same national companies.

“Hotel workers in Indianapolis have been struggling for some time to make a better life for ourselves and our families,” says Eric Martin, who has worked at the Hyatt Regency for 12 years as a banquet steward. “I make just over $10 an hour, even though I’ve worked here more than a decade and I just want what every parent wants – a decent life for my daughter. It means a lot to know that the players – who work hard on the field to please their fans, just like we work hard to please our guests at the hotels – are behind us.”

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