Hotel Union Discovers Its Muscle

“I think they want to be seen as a union that has real political muscle that they can lend,” Mr. Forand said. “Everybody has seen what [SEIU] 1199’s been able to achieve for their membership by having an effective political operation, and other unions see that, and say, ‘We want that, too.’”

Some in the labor community and the Democratic Party are frustrated with the union’s recent about-face, as it for years wrote large checks to the Senate Republicans when the Democrats were trying to take over.

Mr. Ward “worked to prevent the majority from taking place before,” one Democratic supporter said.

Still, the Senate Democrats are not complaining, and the union was hardly the only interest group to flip its support this year.

As for the union’s goals, Mr. Ward said issues such as affordable housing and public transit are of great importance to his members, as is a desire to see new hotels have a unionized workforce. Much hotel development can go up without any subjective approvals, and thus Mr. Ward hopes to lean on key elected officials in land-use matters to require new hotels on city- and state-controlled property to have neutrality agreements, a provision that drops barriers to unionization. Developers oppose such agreements, saying costs can rise significantly with labor requirements.

Willets Point, where the Bloomberg administration successfully pushed through the Council a plan for a $3 billion new housing and retail development, was the first high-profile example. Along with other large unions as part of the Central Labor Council, the hotels union withheld support for the city’s plan until the Bloomberg administration agreed that it would work to ensure that the hotel planned at the development would be unionized. After that concession, the union engaged in a major push for the development, including lobbying the local councilman, Mr. Monserrate, incessantly; trying to ameliorate concerns about job losses by expanding a hospitality training program; and leaning on other actors involved.

Already, the union has leaned on elected officials to gain a neutrality agreement at a planned development on East 125th Street that just underwent a rezoning; and it is targeting planned hotels at the West Side rail yards, Coney Island and the former Bellevue psychiatric hospital on the East Side.

The union has also pushed for a citywide requirement that any new hotel get a special permit in order to be built. The Bloomberg administration balked at such a plan, and real estate executives said it would unnecessarily add impediments when zoning already allows for hotels.

Particularly in its push at Willets, where it cut a deal with the Bloomberg administration months after the other major unions involved, many in the labor community say Mr. Ward’s group is not as cooperative as others.

“They’re go-it-aloners—not team players,” said one union official.

Still, Mr. Ward said the union is much in the learning phase of its newfound political aspirations. “Our goal,” he said, “is to get better at learning to be an advocate for—or an obstacle to—development.”

Hotel Union Discovers Its Muscle