Saturday, July 20, 2024

Audience members keep streaming up the stairs of City Hall on Monday to pack a meeting in which the City Council will hear two labor-friendly measures. At left are Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, and Terrence Smith, director of government affairs at the city’s Chamber of Commerce, who opposed one of the measures. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Hotels that subcontract housekeeping services couldn’t renew licenses in Cambridge if a City Council order passed Monday passes muster with city lawyers and the Licensing Commission.

It was one of two labor-friendly pieces of business led by councillor Marjorie Decker and approved unanimously at the council’s meeting, the other being a resolution asking Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to stop all layoffs and cutbacks in hours and benefits.

The hotel matter sprang from the Aug. 31 firings of 130 workers from three Hyatt Hotels Corp. properties in Cambridge and Boston, sparking outrage and anti-Hyatt resolutions in those cities and at the State House. Many of the employees were at Hyatt for more than one or even two decades and earned $15 or $16 per hour. Now, if they still work at Hyatt, it is through temp agencies that pay $8 per hour.

The issue drew out dozens of supporters of the so-called Hyatt 100 and opponents of Hyatt’s actions, and before voting, councillors were happy to explain the steps they’d taken to show where they stand. Denise Simmons said she had rejected two speaking engagements at conferences or panels held at Hyatt hotels; Tim Toomey planned to ask Boston University to house their dorm-overflow students elsewhere.

And Leland Cheung said he’d managed to sit down with the manager of the hotel. “I don’t think he’s an evil guy. I think he made a bad decision,” Cheung said, and one clearly not made as a make-or-break matter of profitability. Cheung offered help in bringing business to the Hyatt if the workers were brought back and if future decisions were made more sensitively. “I’ll help you make money, but I won’t help you save money,” he said, summing up his approach in the conversation.

When the votes were taken, even those seated as part of the standing-room-only crowd took to their feet to applaud, first in free-form delight, then in increasingly rapid rhythm.

While most of the audience was in support, and there was a lengthy public comment period to accommodate them, there were a few to speak against the hotel order.

Terrence Smith, director of government affairs at the city’s Chamber of Commerce, said the order “asks the city to do something it cannot do that would not address a problem that does not exist.”

And Denise Jillson, executive director of the Harvard Square Business Association, called the order “draconian.”

“This practice has been conducted by the Hyatt and only the Hyatt. And the ramifications and the implication of this language and this order [would hurt] all the other hotels in the city,” she said.

It wasn’t even clear the order was legal, Jillson said.

Decker brushed them back in a 20-minute response — noting, along the way, that the business association had helped craft the order after she’d given local industry a three-week warning it was on the way.

The city has the right to define what business practices warrant a license, she noted, although the council does not direct the work of the License Commission.

She also blasted the opponents’ use of “inflammatory” language to defend the rights of hotels to engage in outsourcing even while acknowledging it was a bad business practice.

While Smith brought up the $7 million tax benefit to the city from its many hotels, others countered with the results of a Hyatt boycott. Rosanna Hertz, president of the Eastern Sociological Society, said her group broke a $100,000-plus contract with the Hyatt to move a conference to a Boston hotel without labor issues.

Donald Sheehan, of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 35, said he too had taken action against Hyatt, directing members of his family to stay elsewhere while in town for a wedding.

“This is a very tough economy,” Sheehan said. “To be kicked to the curb like animals is a disgrace by the Hyatt.”

“Let me tell you about subcontracting — it’s a race to the bottom. I’m going through it now. I’ve been in the subcontracting business my whole life of 30 years in the construction market. It’s the dirtiest, nastiest business you want to get involved in,” he said. “And if you let these people get wrapped up in it, shame on everybody.”

Update: This story has been updated with additional quotes and to fix Smith’s quote.