By Irwin Becker
A.J. Liebling, the famous newspaper critic who wrote the Wayward Press column for the New Yorker (and who worked for several years in the Twenties for the Providence Journal), in a classic piece on who causes strikes, asked what if a paper reported that a company refused to pay decent wages, reduced health benefits, or avoided decent working conditions, and essentially went on strike against its workers? He was just pointing out the obvious unfairness of pro-business newspapers that routinely reported that unions had started a strike because their demands were not being met.
There is a non-strike of sorts going on at the Westin Hotel, where members of the tiny 200-member hotel workers union had started an informational picket after the hotel’s owner, following a period of negotiations until the labor contract expired in October, unilaterally cut wages, increased health care contributions and increased workloads. And the conflict grew, in face of a multi-month boycott initiated by the union, causing the hotel to lose profitable corporate and tourist business. A few weeks ago, the owners retaliated, telling 50 of the union workers they were to be laid off by the end of June.
This seems reminiscent of the capital-worker wars of the 1930s when the labor movement won critical recognition from the auto industry and, most famously, from the garment manufacturers who were organized by the legendary International Ladies Garment Workers Union in New York City. (Note: My aunt was a member of that union, as was my wife’s uncle.) I mention that outfit because they were the indirect creators of UNITE HERE, the national union of which the hotel workers local is a member.
And who owns the Westin? The second generation of The Procaccianti Group, which started in Cranston and now controls $6-billion dollars in various real estate investments including either owning, developing or managing 5,000 condos and luxury residences, 57 hotels and 8,000 employees, mostly in secondary markets in the states. The Group’s web site claims it is one of the five largest privately held hotel owners in the country.
In the midst of this state’s depression-like economy, and despite the union’s agreeing to a freeze in wages and benefits, the Westin’s owners are trying to take advantage of our desperate economic conditions and hope to break the union. It raises the basic question of who is the “special interest” sucking wealth from the state—a mega corporation with tax breaks and other political handouts, or a group of workers facing unemployment, loss of health insurance, and possibly even foreclosures?
Where is Liebling’s successor?