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Gridlocked Richmond Sheraton strike prompts new union by hotel staff

A new association was formed following discontent with Unite Here Local 40; no new mediator has been appointed since December 2023.

A new union has been created amid a labour dispute at the Sheraton Hotel in Richmond.

Employees at Sheraton Vancouver Airport Hotel, who belong to Unite Here Local 40, have been on strike for almost 10 months.

But some employees who’ve gone back to work and some who are still on strike decided to form their own union, the B.C. Hospitality Employees' Association Local 7551 (BCHEA) in January, claiming Unite Here isn't bargaining in good faith.

BCHEA currently has more than 100 members, consisting of those who crossed the picket line and those who couldn’t because of labour rules.

"So this all started with trying to figure out a way to get these people back who want to come back," BCHEA member Ani Avakians explained.

The benefit of BCHEA, she told the News, is employees get to decide within the hotel on how to run things rather than "having this outside source do the fighting for us and fighting for things that we don't really care about."

Avakians, who crossed the picket line last fall, said those who decided to do so "are absolutely not anti-union."

"I really enjoy working for a union hotel. But our experience with Local 40, at our hotel specifically, has been so terrible that this is what's kind of made us try to find a way where we can still stay protected," she said.

The News reached out to Unite Here Local 40 to request for comment on the establishment of BCHEA but did not receive a response.

Mel Woo, another Sheraton employee and authorized spokesperson for the BCHEA, added employees also decided to join the BCHEA because they were not allowed to vote on a mediator's proposal in December; rather, it was rejected by the union leadership.

"The whole philosophy behind the BCHEA is equal voice, equal representation of all its members so that we would allow... a more democratic process to decide upon any counteroffers or what direction we wanted to go in negotiations," he explained, adding that the response has been "quite positive."

Employees who have joined BCHEA are also frustrated at a boycott by the City of Richmond that they say is hurting the business and thereby its employees.

But a BCHEA member who wanted to speak to city council to explain the other side of the story wasn’t allowed to with the city citing legal advice for cancelling her presentation that was supposed to take place on March 11.

City council agreed to boycott all three hotels in January after hearing from a delegation of representatives from Unite Here Local 40.

Three council members, however, including Mayor Malcolm Brodie, wanted the boycott to only cover the Sheraton and not the other two hotels under the same ownership but not on strike. They were over-ruled by the majority.

"Council has shown they stand with working people fighting for a living wage and are helping us send a message to one of Canada’s wealthiest hotel owners to respect workers and resolve this dispute," said striking Sheraton banquet server Felisha Perry in a press release at the time.

Woo, however, disagreed.

"I am really, really disappointed in Mayor Brodie and city council," he told the News. "They never investigated (the union's) claims."

Woo questioned whether council was aware that a mediator's proposal on Dec. 7, which the mediator said would bring "parity or better with other hotel workers in the industry," was not put to the members for a vote.

"What they have done is hurt the employees of the other two hotels who have nothing to do with this dispute other than being on the same property. Nothing," he said.

"I would like Mayor Brodie and city council to rescind the boycott because they were lied to. They told untruths."

Avakians, who echoed Woo's concerns, told the News she requested to speak at the March 11 city council meeting but her delegation was denied five days before the meeting.

In a statement to the News, City of Richmond spokesperson Clay Adams confirmed Avakians' delegation was cancelled "on the advice of the city's legal team," but declined to comment further on the matter.

If her delegation had gone ahead as scheduled, city council would have heard from Avakians that she thought the boycott was making things harder for all employees "in the long run."

"It can potentially slow the business down enough where there won’t be hours available for some of the employees to come back to. They think they’re helping the strike, but the reality is that they are going to make it harder for us to earn a living."

Mediator backed out on Dec. 7

Negotiations have yet to continue since the Richmond News last reported on the deadlocked strike in December, according to Unite Here Local 40.

"Negotiations with the hotel broke off in December. The Sheraton Bargaining Committee remains ready to sit down at the bargaining table and negotiate in order to settle this dispute," Unite Here Local 40 spokesperson Sharan Pawa told the News.

"We have told the company we are ready to move forward with or without a mediator. They continue to disrespect the bargaining process, and have not offered any dates they are willing to meet and negotiate with their workers."

The mediator, Amanda Rogers, backed out of the role after issuing a final non-binding proposal on Dec. 7.

In the proposal, Rogers urged the union to test the will of the members to end the strike.

Rogers also noted the "stark realities" that as of December, approximately 23 per cent of eligible employees were working during the labour dispute while 35 per cent of the striking workers were ineligible to work.

By December, more than 50 out of around 227 eligible employees had returned to work but 123 were ineligible because they were hired after the union issued the bargaining notice.

As of the time of publication of this article, no new mediator has been appointed.

Metro Vancouver's hotel industry is poised to have "the most expensive average hotel room prices for a major city this summer in Canadian history" and the hotel is hurting business and employees by not settling the strike, said Pawa.

On March 28, Unite Here Local 40 and its ally the Culinary Union announced a boycott of the Lalji family-owned Rampart Casino at the JW Marriott Resort in Las Vegas in support of the Richmond Sheraton strike.

Need 'more than a strike pay to cover my bills'

As the strike drags on, some employees are finding it difficult to remain at the picket line.

Woo, who did not have the option to cross the picket line, told the News he has had to leave the picket line.

"It has hurt me financially. I mean, I have other costs... bills that have been delayed. I need to address that. And that's the reason why I left the line," he explained.

"I needed something more than a strike pay to cover my bills."

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