The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Dubuque is expanding its footprint by adding some nontraditional members to its ranks — hotel workers.
In June, there was only one unionized hotel in Iowa. Casino and hotel workers at Prairie Meadows in Altoona were and still are represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
In July, the Hilton Garden Inn of Dubuque became the second hotel to unionize in the state, which brought about 30 new members into the IBEW Local 704.
Now, the Local 704 is working to organize another 22 workers at a third hotel, the Holiday Inn Express in Dubuque.
Peter Hird, membership development coordinator at the Local 704, said new membership was good for the union because they have tried to collect more union members since the 704 lost 300 to 400 members when Thermo Fischer Scientific closed its doors in 2009.
It’s getting harder to get into the manufacturing facilities where the IBEW typically draws its members from, Hird said, because people are becoming more afraid of losing their jobs as companies threaten to move overseas.
“The hotel industry isn’t quite as volatile as a manufacturing plant,” Hird said. “They can’t just ship everything and move somewhere else. Their business is here.”
Since the IBEW hasn’t historically represented hotel workers, Hird said he wasn’t sure what to expect when the union agreed to represent them. But, it hasn’t been much different than the electricians they normally represent.
“A lot of the same problems exist,” Hird said. “A lot of it is about who’s favoring another person and if they are treating person A the same as they’re treating person B. I think no matter what workplace you’re in, that’s kind of the case.”
Tiffany Trowbridge, a housekeeping assistant supervisor and full-time laundry employee at the Hilton Garden Inn, said the decision to organize was made because workers felt they weren’t being heard.
“It came down to the fact that a lot of us were working holidays and we were working a bunch of overtime, but we’re not getting the benefits that should come along with it. We weren’t getting holiday pay,” Trowbridge said. “A lot of us were getting thrown on jobs we didn’t want, or if there was a job we wanted, it would go to somebody completely different.
“We wanted seniority factors,” Trowbridge said. “It was little, small things, but when we went to complain about it, we felt like we weren’t being heard.”
Hird said people generally saw unions as groups that represent blue-collar manufacturing and construction workers, but there was just as much unfairness happening in office buildings and hotels.
“I think people are seeing what unions can do,” Hird said. “I think in the future, this is going to happen more and more, not just to our unions, but to unions across the state. People will start making that phone call because they’ll have that one day when management pushes them too far and they’ll say ‘alright, I’m done.'”
JoAnn Jurisic, who spent 30 years as a union representative for the local post office, has worked at the Holiday Inn Express for about two years. She currently is helping the Holiday Inn Express organize.
“I think the choice to unionize was made because no one got any decent raises and they weren’t fair about some of them,” Jurisic said. “Some people got more and some people got less. I’ve only been here for a year-and-a-half, but our last raise was 27 cents. I think we’re the lowest-paid hotel in Dubuque.”
Unionization efforts, which are still ongoing at the Holiday Inn Express, were inspired by the efforts made earlier in the year at the Hilton. Jurisic said she saw a story in the Dubuque Telegraph Herald about the hotel unionizing, so she started passing around the newspaper clip to her colleagues.
“I started to explain to people how unions work,” Jurisic said. “I said, ‘If you guys want to do it, I’ll find out who takes care of it,’ and they said they were interested.”
Hird was in luck when it came time to organize the Hilton Garden Inn. An IBEW member who had worked for Thermo Fischer Scientific came to him looking for a union to join.
He said it appeared he needed to act quickly, because oftentimes the decision to unionize was based on one event that happened at a workplace.
“Maybe somebody got written up and they didn’t feel they deserved it or somebody got treated unfairly by management and that’s it,” Hird said. “Sometimes you kind of cool off after a couple of days, and I didn’t have a clear place to put the hotel workers, so I was like, alright, I’ll help you.”
The unionization process began at the Hilton in February and ended in July with relatively little pushback from the company, Hird said.
Trowbridge said she “loves being unionized” and has been more involved in the process than she expected.
“We have meetings once a month and we all show up,” Trowbridge said. “I didn’t think I’d be interested in this sort of stuff, but I’m always excited about it now.”
Overall, she said, unionizing has created a better atmosphere at work.
“I feel like the employees are a little happier for the stuff we put in our contract,” Trowbridge said. “It’s not all favoritism. It’s written that this is the way it works and that’s it.”
Negotiations are still going on at the Holiday Inn Express, but Jurissic said she was hopeful they’ll end soon. So far, she said it’s taken little to no time outside of work to help her colleagues unionize.
“If there were more workers than just 20-some, it may have taken a little more time to collect their names and addresses and cards,” Jurisic said. “But it’s been really minimal.”
As a long-time union member, Jurisic said she hoped more hotel workers choose to unionize in the future.
“I think everybody should be unionized,” Jurisic said. “Unless you have some outstanding employer who is going to give people fair wages and fair benefits, I just don’t know how you can not want a union.”
By Paige Godden