Hotel Union Discovers Its Muscle

On Nov. 12, at an event announcing his support for the Bloomberg administration’s planned Willets Point redevelopment, Queens Councilman Hiram Monserrate made a round of thank-yous, mentioning city officials, other electeds, his staff and, with a smirk, the unions.

“I want to thank all my labor partners, who ensured and reminded me how important this project was along the way,” he said.

The smirk came perhaps on account of one union in particular, the New York Hotel Trades Council, which had been especially persistent, lobbying, advocating and badgering Mr. Monserrate for months to gain his support.

“The Hotel Trades Council,” he said in an interview, “was the most proactive labor organization with respect to Willets—constantly, constantly calling me, and communicating with me, on a several-times-a-week basis.”

Until recently, the trades union wouldn’t have warranted such a statement. The approximately 30,000-member organization, led by Peter Ward, its president, long stayed closer to the political sidelines, becoming active on select issues like the West Side stadium but hardly assuming a powerful position in New York City’s political scene, as do some other unions, such as Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1199 and the building trades’ unions.

But as real estate values soared in the recent building boom and new hotels—many of which do not have a unionized workforce—popped up with a ferocity, Mr. Ward made a conscious decision to try to build up his organization’s political muscle. 

“It seems like the only way that you can accomplish [our] goals, which is to be relevant and at the table, is to have a political operation that functions at a high level,” Mr. Ward said in an interview in his midtown office.

The approach to build this power, which Mr. Ward said grew out of an organizing infrastructure the union put in place before a 2006 citywide contract negotiation, has focused on both City Hall and Albany. In the past year, the union hired new political staff, ramped up political training for its members and switched sides in the State Senate, ending years of support for Senate Republicans.

While the political strength of unions has waned nationally, in New York City and State they remain powerful special interests that are able to steer policy through support for elected officials, a power that draws the ire of good-government groups. This power comes from the checks they write to campaigns, but even more so from their ability to convince their members to vote and their capacity to do large-scale organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts for candidates on Election Day.

In the months before November, the hotel union pushed substantially to flip the State Senate to Democratic control, in what Mr. Ward and Democratic operatives say was by far the largest electoral effort the union has made in years.

Doug Forand, chief strategist for the state Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, said the union probably had 150 to 200 volunteers on the ground assisting get-out-the-vote efforts on Election Day in a crucial Queens race, more volunteers than any other single group or union. The race, in which Democrat Joseph Addabbo defeated the Republican incumbent, was one of just two seats the Democrats picked up in the Senate, earning them a razor-thin margin of control for the first time in decades.

Hotel Union Discovers Its Muscle