By FOLA AKINNIBI
December 17, 2021 10:00 AM
Tens of thousands of hotel workers in New York City are fighting to retain their political influence ahead of what will be a decisive moment for the recovery of the city’s $40 billion tourism industry.
The New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council, the city’s hotel union, has spent the last 18 months pushing for Covid-19 safety protections and severance pay for its roughly 37,000 members in New York and New Jersey, while strategically backing politicians who it believes will prove future allies. It’s never been more politically potent, even as it comes off the worst period in its history.
The union, known as HTC, made an early, calculated move to back Mayor-elect Eric Adams and now stands at the center of power in city politics: The union’s former political director, Katie Moore, was Adams’s campaign manager and is now executive director of his transition team — in which union president, Rich Maroko, also landed a leadership role.
On Thursday, HTC threw its support behind New York Governor Kathy Hochul for the 2022 governor’s race, providing one of the first major endorsements of the campaign and laying an early claim should the frontrunner clinch the win.
That political activity will likely pay dividends — especially as a reset in the labor market draws sympathy for workers across industries.
“We really are in a ground-breaking moment of political connectivity,” Maroko said in an interview in the HTC’s Midtown Manhattan office, which is adorned with black-and-white photos of historical union strikes. “There is something to be said when you go out early for a candidate.”
A lot is riding on the HTC’s ability to wield its influence over the reopening of hotels and development in the city, particularly as the tourism hub tries to emerge from one of the worst moments in the industry’s history. Tourism had accounted for 3.5% of the local economy, supporting 400,000 jobs, but visitors dropped by 67% last year and employment dropped by a third.
Now, the union must find a way to help its members get paid even as half of them remain unemployed and pave a path to revive tourism even as Covid again spikes in the city.
“They need to make sure that as we come out of this, we come out of it with their members in mind and their members taken care of,” said Christine Quinn, a former New York City Council speaker and one-time mayoral candidate. That’s why building inroads with city and state leadership “matter so much to the union,” she said.
There couldn’t have been more at stake when Maroko took over as the HTC’s president in August 2020.
The pandemic had ground tourism to a halt and shuttered hundreds of hotels. Hotel occupancy dropped below 40% from a high of 90% pre-pandemic, according to a report from the state comptroller’s office. And Maroko’s predecessor, New York power broker Peter Ward, had just stepped down after three decades as one of the most influential men in the U.S. hotel industry. The future of the union — and tens of thousands of hotel workers — was in doubt.
Maroko’s first task was negotiating a health insurance contract with the city’s hotel association.
“I remember walking down the back stairs into those negotiations thinking health care is ending,” said Maroko, who for nearly two decades before served as the union’s general counsel. “It was the loneliest walk I’ve ever taken.”
Ward was no longer by his side. Members, Maroko included, were already getting infected with Covid. “A huge number of our members were laid off. And, you know, a lot of people were saying, ‘well, is that going to hurt the union’s political credibility?’” he said.
Maroko said he focused on two things: Health and money. First, he negotiated a series of safety protocols with hotels to ensure employees were protected against Covid. Then, he made sure workers whose hotels had shuttered would get paid.
It was grueling work. More than 90% of union’s members were unemployed at the height of the pandemic. About 500 members died from Covid.
The union spent hours on the phone with its members in what it called “How are you?” calls. HTC, which runs a number of health-care facilities, helped ensure workers had access to doctors, unemployment benefits, housing assistance and, ultimately, vaccines.
“We made a point of calling our members while they were on layoff to see what they needed,” Maroko said.
The outreach made HTC a trusted source of information and aid. So when the union came calling months later to ask members to make calls or canvas on behalf of its favored mayoral candidate — Eric Adams — the members were happy to oblige. It worked.
“It doesn’t matter how many members you have in a union,” Quinn said. “What matters is how many members you get to vote and how many of those members vote for the person you endorsed.”
The HTC was also able to lean on its relationship with Mayor Bill de Blasio to get more hotels to reopen their doors.
In October, de Blasio signed off on a union-backed bill requiring large hotels to pay employee severance if they are closed and have not recalled at least a quarter of their workforce. Within days, major hotels like the Midtown Manhattan Hilton opened their doors after 18 months. Other hotel operators filed suit.
“We don’t think the hotel industry, which is already crippled, should be burdened by this thing,” said Vijay Dandapani, president and CEO of the Hotel Association of New York City, a business group representing more than 300 hotels, which brought the lawsuit. “People have been laid off in retail. We were the only ones singled out for this.” The lawsuit is pending.
Indeed, de Blasio had reason to consider the union, which was among the handful of supporters for his long-shot 2020 presidential bid. The HTC’s political action committee — the only local union to support him — spent roughly $450,000 on advertisements for de Blasio across the U.S. in 2019.
De Blasio would also help shepherd through a bill restricting new hotel development, a measure the union favored to combat overdevelopment and depressed room rates. A separate industry trade group filed a lawsuit against that bill, too.
The real purpose of the legislation is “making a collective bargaining agreement with the Hotel and Motel Trades Council, the city’s exceedingly powerful hotel workers’ union, the de facto price of entry to hotel development in New York City,” wrote trade group New Yorkers for Tourism in its lawsuit.
With de Blasio term limited and the most consequential mayoral race in nearly a decade on the horizon, the union bet on Adams early, in March 2021. It spent $1 million on the race — and another $720,000 on the City Council race, where 75% of the candidates it endorsed won.
“It was a calculation on our part,” Maroko said. “High risk, in the end, high reward.”
Banking on the wrong candidate can be devastating for private-sector unions, said political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. And at the time Andrew Yang led the crowded race — 28% to Adams’s 17% in a February poll — riding on name recognition from the U.S. Democratic primary.
Now, with a competitive race for New York governor taking shape in 2022, the union wants to offer Hochul some of the same resources that propelled Adams to his win, including funding, canvassing help and the all-important New York City vote.
Hochul has already zeroed in on the sector. Last month, she announced a $450 million tourism initiative, which includes direct payments of $2,750 to 36,000 workers and $100 million in grants for businesses to rehire staff.
The state Gaming Commission — which Hochul ultimately oversees — is considering opening three casinos in the New York City region, which would mean more jobs — and more HTC union members.
The union is also benefiting from an upheaval in the labor market after the decades-long erosion of union power in the U.S. As workers claw back lost ground, Maroko is optimistic.
“We were there in this very difficult time for the industry, for our members, a transitional time for us, and we had to prove ourselves to the industry, we had to prove ourselves to the membership, we had to prove ourselves to the political class,” Maroko said of the pandemic. “We have come out of this stronger.”