Hotel unions push for better wages — or no new hotels — in Alexandria

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Ismail Ahmed had spent last fall canvassing for Democratic candidates in Alexandria, but now he was speaking up against them.

Lawmakers in this DC suburb were getting ready to vote on a major riverfront redevelopment project, and Ahmed wanted them to ensure service jobs at the site would pay well — better than the $11-an-hour, part-time gig as a hotel shuttle driver that I left in 2020.

With that goal looking increasingly tenuous, the 39-year-old Ethiopian immigrant made his final pitch at a city council meeting earlier this month: “We don’t have any good-paying jobs in Alexandria,” he said. And if an on-site hotel couldn’t offer high wages, then city lawmakers should bar any kind of hotel there.

That is the unusual message his labor union, Unite Here, has been pushing as it tries to make inroads into local politics in Northern Virginia — the most liberal pocket of a state long known for its hostility to organized labor.

Facing gridlock in a divided General Assembly, Ahmed and other union members have instead looked to the entirely Democratic Alexandria City Council, pressuring lawmakers to require higher wages at new hotels popping up in their city — or to keep those hotels from popping up at all.

Forgotten tipped workers like hotel maids and airport skycaps were already hit hard by a cashless economy. Then came the pandemic.

For an aggressive union that is putting more of its resources south of the Potomac River, it’s a stark change in strategy — one meant to benefit from the development booming across Northern Virginia.

And for Alexandria’s city lawmakers, all proud liberals who have fashioned themselves as champions of organized labor, it’s one that has put them in the awkward position of sparring with a union over what, exactly, the city can do.

“They want us to set up scenarios where unionization can be guaranteed, and that’s hard,” Mayor Justin Wilson (D) said. “This is all new for everybody. Most Northern Virginia jurisdictions will tell you that [greater involvement] is a positive, but it doesn’t come without speed bumps and tension at times.”

Twice this year, Unite Here has lobbied Wilson and the council on major projects: first, a luxury hotel in the heart of the city’s Old Town, and then earlier this month on the former GenOn coal plant, which is being redeveloped into a mixed- use arts district that could include a hotel.

As city lawmakers insisted they could not legally impose labor standards on developers through land-use approvals, the union called on the council to delay votes — or outright vote no.

“Decision-makers need to use their discretionary power to get better deals for their communities,” said Paul Schwalb, the executive secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 25, which represents DC-area hotel, restaurant and casino workers. “If certain conditions aren’t met, they shouldn’t move forward with development.”

Yet both efforts passed anyway, pointing to the uphill battle the union is facing in Northern Virginia. Even amid the backdrop of a flourishing labor movement, in a solidly Democratic region that has only grown bluer, it is confronting the realities of a state where organized labor has never had much of a seat at the table.

When Democrats gained control of the General Assembly in 2019, they made it a priority to chip away at Virginia’s anti-labor reputation.

State lawmakers passed a prevailing wage provision, which requires that construction workers on any large public-works projects must be paid at rates competitive with the private sector, and gave local governments like Alexandria’s the option to follow suit.

For the first time in nearly a half-century, localities also gained the option to recognize collective bargaining rights for their public-sector employees, such as teachers, police officers and firefighters. Alexandria raced to become the first locality in the commonwealth to opt into the practice.

All the while, amid a nationwide wave of labor organizing, Alexandria’s elected officials repeatedly spoke up for unions and unionization efforts: at three Starbucks stores nearby; for custodial workers in city schools; at a new graduate campus coming to the city; and even among the city’s own public bus operators.

“They’ve done more to move the bar for workers than anything in the last 50 years,” said Don Slaiman, a member of the Alexandria Democrats’ Labor Caucus and an executive council member for the NoVA Labor Federation. “They made the most abrupt changes I’ve witnessed.”

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Those changing tides drew Unite Here to get involved, too. While the union had generally focused on lobbying in DC or Annapolis, members joined Democrats’ efforts to raise the minimum wage in the state to $15 an hour. Ahead of competitive nationwide elections last fall, the group hired 200 laid-off hotel workers, including Ahmed, to work as canvassers for the Democratic ticket.

In some sense, the effort was about dedicating resources closer to its membership. Of about 13,000 Unite Here members in the DC area, about 8,000 live in Northern Virginia — although far fewer actually work there.

Schwalb, the local’s executive secretary, acknowledged that his group was also pushing into the region because of Northern Virginia’s building boom.

“We think that’s where hotel development is going to happen,” he said. “In order to protect the contract our members have, we need to make sure we grow our market share.”

Just four hotels in Northern Virginia are unionized. In addition to the two Alexandria projects, Unite Here organizers have started eyeing possible hotels at a Brookfield property near Amazon’s new Arlington County headquarters and at an indoor ski resort in Lorton. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

After Republicans gained control of the governor’s mansion and the state House of Delegates last fall, organized labor lost its hopes to keep pushing liberal labor legislation in Richmond. And so Unite Here turned to elected officials in Alexandria.

What can Alexandria officials actually do?

That is how Ahmed ended up going door to door around Old Town on a sunny Saturday this spring, urging other Alexandria residents to join him in pushing back against a council that insisted its hands were tied.

“They promise they’re on the side of immigrant people,” he told one man, standing outside a brick rowhouse in Old Town. “They said they’d create good-paying jobs and affordable housing.”

But so far, he explained, those promises had fallen short: As plans for the luxury Hotel Heron in Old Town came up for a vote in January, the council members shot down Unite Here’s request that they require a “labor peace agreement,” which would make it easier for workers there to unionize.

Wilson, the mayor, questioned whether those additional standards would make the project no longer economically viable. “Yes, we want to create jobs and we want to create good jobs that support families in our community,” he said, “but you can’t push that envelope so far that nothing happens.”

Stephanie Landrum, president and chief executive of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, said the union’s subsequent demand — to reject putting city dollars toward the hotel entirely — ignored the development’s many benefits: It would generate tax revenue, require few city services and create some of the highest-paying hospitality jobs in Alexandria.

It passed the council 4-3 — much to the chagrin of organizers, who said those part-time jobs would still make it hard to afford rent in a costly city like Alexandria.

And so Ahmed went door to door later in the spring, pushing his message. A father of two, he was struggling to pay rent for his two-bedroom apartment on the city’s West End, while juggling a few low-paid, part-time gigs as a parking attendant and driving for Uber Eats.

“I want to work where I live in Alexandria,” I said at one door. “The minimum wage is too low, and we need an opportunity to have jobs that have enough money.”

This time, Unite Here was organizing around another major project that had come through the development pipeline to council. The developer Hilco Redevelopment Partners was looking to transform a former power plant in Old Town North, seeking zoning changes that could allow the construction of a 300-bed hotel.

Unite Here joined with environmental groups and housing advocates to pressure Alexandria council members to ask the developer for more: More units of more deeply affordable housing. Higher energy efficiency performance targets. Apprenticeship programs and higher wages, closer to the $25-an-hour rate at union hotels in DC

Schwalb, of Unite Here, noted that city lawmakers in Boston had included labor unions in discussions on a similar Hilco project from the get-go, resulting in a strong set of labor standards.

But because no Alexandria money was used in this case, elected officials insisted they had less leverage. City Council has deferred to a Virginia law that bars lawmakers from imposing land-use requirements that would negatively affect hiring practices or a developer’s business. Hilco did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A coal power plant was shuttered for nearly a decade. Hundreds of residents are getting a peek at its future.

The council approved the zoning changes in a 6-1 vote on July 5. “I’m not about to kill a project that will not only clean up the site, which is sorely needed, but also be an economic driver for the city, ” said Councilman Canek Aguirre (D), who voted “yes.”

With more hotels likely to be built soon, Unite Here organizers said they plan to continue lobbying in Alexandria and deeper in Northern Virginia.

But the tensions so far in Alexandria point to the work they say is left to be done — even and especially in a liberal city that otherwise has supported organized labor.

“These city council folks want to do the right thing,” said Slaiman, of the NoVA Labor Federation. “We just have to help prepare them to do the right thing.”

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