A hearing into allegations of unfair labor practices filed against the Hyatt Regency Baltimore began late Monday after hours of ultimately fruitless discussion about settling the complaint.
National Labor Relations Board attorneys began their case against the hotel by describing the situation as a "predictable pattern" of "unlawful" management responses to unionizing efforts by employees working with Unite Here, a union that represents employees in fields such as hospitality.
"It's a classic nip-in-the-bud case," said Sean R. Marshall, a senior trial attorney for the board.
In a November complaint, the board's general counsel alleged that Hyatt Regency managers who "interrogated employees about their union activities" suddenly began "invoking harsh discipline" when employees arrived late to work and fired four people last year as part of the reaction to unionizing.
Since then, one of the workers has been rehired, Unite Here says. Eric M. Fine, an administrative law judge for the board, will decide whether to reinstate the other three and whether to order the Hyatt to give them back pay. The government's case also alleges other unfair labor practices against workers who were not fired.
Hyatt Regency's general manager, Gail Smith-Howard, said in a statement that she believes the hotel will prevail. She said in an earlier interview that the hotel hasn't tried to stop workers from unionizing.
"Because of our disagreement with UniteHere over its organizing tactics, the union has said and done anything to advance its cause, including making false accusations about Hyatt's workplace environment in Baltimore and elsewhere," she said in the statement.
Unite Here, which said Hyatt Regency managers disciplined workers for arriving as little as one minute late after union activities came to light, expects the government to call at least a dozen witnesses. The case will likely continue past this week.
"I think it's really significant that this many workers are coming forward to testify," said Tracy Lingo, an organizer with Unite Here Local 7 in Baltimore.
The National Labor Relations Board says about 90 percent of its cases settle. Attorneys on both sides of the Hyatt case tried for most of Monday to do so, with updates to the judge suggesting the parties were getting close, but they couldn't reach an agreement.
After that, there was only time for Marshall's opening statement -- the Hyatt's attorneys will make theirs when their part of the case begins -- and a single witness.
Barthold Philippeaux, who worked in the Hyatt Regency's kitchen for two stretches, most recently from April 2011 to last June, was part of the union organizing committee. He testified that he received a text message from a supervisor that asked about union activities after word got back to managers.
The next day, workers went public. Philippeaux and others passed out union leaflets to co-workers. Soon after, he said, the same supervisor called him into an office.
"He said, 'That right there is a f-- -- up way of trying to get fired,'" said Philippeaux, who now works in Atlanta.
Brian Deller, a Hyatt bartender who is also active in the unionizing effort, said before the hearing that the case is encouraging workers to press on.
"In this country, you have the right to organize a union, you have the right to join a union and you cannot be fired for that," he said.
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