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UNITE-HERE Pickets NOLA Hilton After Concluding Negotiations at Harrah's Casino Across the Street

 

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by   Samuel Morris               Godwin Morris Laurenzi Bloomfield

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UNITE-HERE Pickets NOLA Hilton After Concluding Negotiations at Harrah's Casino Across the Street

Hilton Riverside workers picket: 'Without us the city can't move'

Jennifer Larino, NOLA.com | The Times-PicayuneBy Jennifer Larino, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune 

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In a few months, Willie Woods will sit with hundreds of other proud smiling parents and watch his son walk across a stage, receive his diploma and graduate from Xavier University. In a way, that diploma will be a victory for Woods as much as it will be for his son.

For more than 20 years, Woods has worked long hours at New Orleans hotels to support his family, to put food on the table, pay bills and, later, tuition.

Woods, now a banquet waiter at the Hilton Riverside in downtown New Orleans, said he gets by and he likes his work.

But at age 54, Woods said he is tired of just getting by. He wants a voice.

Woods was among about 100 hospitality workers and supporters who gathered Friday afternoon (Jan. 29) to mark the start of Mardi Gras season -- one of the busiest times of the year for local hotels -- and picket Hilton Riverside management urging the hotel management to allow workers there to discuss the possibility of organizing under a union.

Woods said he and his co-workers have watched as labor unions have negotiated contracts at Harrah's Hotel and Casino and other venues in recent years.

"All we're asking for is a fair process," Woods said. "We want the same fair process that everyone else has had."

Calls Friday to the Hilton Riverside executive office and Hilton corporate communications were not answered. Corporate officials did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.

Organizers said Friday's picket at the foot of Poydras Street was informational. Participating Hilton workers will return to work as Mardi Gras season picks up in coming days.

In New Orleans fashion, the demonstration was one part picket line and one part second line, workers bobbing their hand-held signs to the blasts and thumps of a brass band. Picketers wore T-shirts for Unite Here, a national hospitality union.

Unite Here and the local Teamsters Union negotiated a labor contract in 2014 with Harrah's Hotel and Casino, a deal that nearly doubled organized labor's footprint in the local tourism industry.

The Unite Here New Orleans local represents 1,800 workers in the city, including about 750 Harrah's housekeeping and food service workers. The Teamsters local represents another 150 Harrah's employees who work as valets, front desk workers and bellhops.

Scott Cooper, organizing director of Unite Here's New Orleans local, said Hilton Riverside workers came together a year ago to talk with management about forming a union. Cooper said the reception has been cool thus far.

Cooper said the picket was a show of support for the Hilton workers and a call for Hilton management to open talks. He noted Unite Here already represents 12,000 Hilton workers nationwide.

"It's time for New Orleans workers to have the same process," Cooper said.

Workers at the Friday picket line were hesitant to dig up complaints, emphasizing the march was more about upholding worker's rights to organize than making demands. Several commenters did express a desire to earn a living wage.

Average pay for Hilton Riverside workers was not immediately available, but Unite Here organizers noted the vast majority of Hilton workers are tipped employees. The minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.13 an hour in Louisiana.

NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune reported in 2014 typical wages under Unite Here contracts in Mississippi fell in the $13- to $14-an-hour range.

On Friday, Woods, dressed in a crisp white shirt and suspenders, held a picket sign as he swayed to the brass music at the front of the march.

Woods, a 10-year Hilton employee, said hospitality workers often pull shifts as long as 18 hours, especially during Mardi Gras and other peak tourism seasons. But he said too many workers -- including himself -- are living paycheck to paycheck. Hospitality workers deserve better, he said.

"Without us the city can't move," Woods said. "Without the hospitality industry this city would be shut down. We're just out here asking for a fair process."

 

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