The Hospitality Honcho: How Peter Ward Became The Most Powerful Labor Leader in New York City

On the night last month when Grace Meng won a tightly contested Democratic primary for a new Congressional seat in

Art via Fred Harper

On the night last month when Grace Meng won a tightly contested Democratic primary for a new Congressional seat in Queens, she took the stage at a packed campaign party and told the story of her run. It was rough going for a while, she said. But then, “Peter Ward and the Hotel Trades Council took a chance on me and they came on board. HTC is at the forefront of modern organizing and their muscle and people have been the spine of our efforts.”

Later that night, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and City Comptroller John Liu reached out, congratulating Mr. Ward on his role in helping push Ms. Meng over the edge.

It was the union’s first real foray into federal elections, and the three mayoral hopefuls already knew what the rest of the city may soon find out: that Mr. Ward, 54 and the head of the hotel workers union for the last 15 years, has quietly become perhaps New York’s most powerful labor boss.

“He is pound for pound the best labor leader in the city, bar none,” said Scott Levenson, a Democratic consultant. “He has taken what in every other city is a poverty-level job, where the business model of the industry relies on people collecting food stamps, and turned it into a job where people can support a family and have a home, a decent retirement. He is creating middle-class careers for New Yorkers.”

For most of the 1990s and early 2000s, the most powerful labor leader in New York State was Dennis Rivera, the head of 1199, the health-care workers union. Under Rivera, they were an unmovable force, bending governors to their will and electing a generation of office holders.

But Mr. Rivera left in 2007, and Patrick Gaspard, the union’s political director, followed soon after to take a job with the Obama administration. And now, despite boasting of a membership of just 30,000—by comparison, 1199 has more than 200,000 members in New York City alone, as does the teacher’s union, while DC37, the public employees union, has 125,000—it is HTC that lawmakers and their political consultants say has become the most sought-after endorsement in the city.

The reason, insiders say, is that most of the city’s union have been content for their political activity to be putting their stamp of approval on a press release. A few will try to contact their members to remind them to vote for the leadership’s preferred candidate, but almost no one will enlist their members in the kind of ground game that HTC does.

“Are other unions resting on their accomplishments from six or 12 years ago? Yeah,” said one Democratic consultant. “It is not enough to say [to a lawmaker] ‘I need this.’ Contrast that with, ‘I am in your district, I am organizing against you, I am fucking your shit up. You need to fix this thing.’”

As the union has grown in relevance, Mr. Ward is an unlikely face for it. Hotel workers are mostly recently arrived immigrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America—Nafissatou Diallo, the Sofitel maid who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of rape was a member of the union, for example—but Mr. Ward is neither an immigrant himself nor the son or even the grandson of immigrants. Sitting in his office suite near Times Square, Mr. Ward instead looks and sounds like someone who organized dockworkers in the 1940s. Or better yet, with his close-cropped hair, gold-glinting watch and cufflinks, tight smile and Brooklyn accent, like someone who played a waterfront organizer in a 1940s movie.

He came to the union in 1979 after growing up in Marine Park, Brooklyn. His mother was a social worker. She died when he was 14. The union didn’t so much offer him a place to let him practice his ideals of social justice as it offered him a job. He started in the lowest slot, checking to make sure members paid their dues on time, soon became an organizer and now boasts that he has the longest tenure of anyone in the building. He has also never worked in a hotel, and he never graduated from college.

For most of Mr. Ward’s tenure at the union, HTC eschewed the grubby world of politics.

“I grew up in a union that operated on the premise that the value that we have to offer our members is our ability to have a powerful organization that can represent them on the shop floor and get them good contracts, and that was really all we should do,” Mr. Ward said. “Along the way, it became more and more clear to me that our members’ interests would be best served if they themselves had a high degree of political awareness and they themselves were working to get candidates elected, and if the candidates themselves view bread-and-butter issues the same way we do. Once you come to that conclusion, what are you supposed to do? Ignore that?”

In 2007, he could no longer. Boutique hotels were opening up across the city, oftentimes without union contracts. So Mr. Ward reached out to Neal Kwatra, a Queens-born son of Indian immigrants, who, after organizing riverboat casino workers in St. Louis right after college, had risen up through the ranks of UNITE HERE, HTC’s national organization, telling him, “We have to get our arms around this problem.”

The two began investigating how hotel construction was financed in the city, and began pushing lawmakers to include hotels in the massive projects undertaken in Coney Island, Willets Point, and at Hudson Yards. Moreover, the union pushed for the yet-to-be-opened hotels to be union shops.

The Hospitality Honcho: How Peter Ward Became The Most Powerful Labor Leader in New York City