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Petaluma council backs union in hotel contract talks

A split Petaluma City Council voted Monday night to support unionized workers at the Petaluma Sheraton hotel in their negotiations with management in a 2-year-old contract dispute.

Mayor David Glass and Council Members Tiffany Renee, Teresa Barrett and Gabe Kearney agreed to send a letter urging Sheraton ownership to increase wages and to guarantee that, if the hotel ever is sold, a new owner would have to abide by the contract.

But Councilmen Chris Albertson, Mike Harris and Mike Healy said they preferred a more neutral letter encouraging continued negotiations.

The about 100 hotel workers represented by UNITEHERE are seeking "incremental wage increases" and a successor clause, which binds a new owner to existing contract provisions. The latest contract expired two years ago, and workers agreed to freeze their wages in the meantime.

Rim Hospitality, which manages the hotel, didn't offer a response to the city's request, and no hotel representatives attended the meeting. Renee said she was told by one of the owners that they wouldn't discuss the negotiations.

Kearney, who "grew up in a union house," said it would be an honor to support the workers.

"It's an absolute. We have to do this," Kearney said.

But Harris said he was uncomfortable "injecting ourselves" into apparently cordial negotiations.

Healy noted no one was claiming management was negotiating unfairly.

"The city of Petaluma needs to be pretty careful when it injects its nose into issues between employers and employees," he said.

Albertson said the successor clause sounded similar to a "me too" clause Petaluma city unions seek to ensure they all have the same rights -- to which he said the council hasn't been receptive.

"The hotel is successful. It's a success because of the employees who work there and because of management. You can't escape that," he said.

In July, Glass wrote a letter as mayor encouraging management to agree to the successor clause. He encouraged the whole council to sign a similar letter this time, saying division could send the wrong message.

He compared the successor clause to the guarantee that city workers have when they are hired -- that they will have certain "rights for life." Why not give the same "dignity" to the Sheraton employees, whose workplace was built partially with a city redevelopment loan, he argued.

The letter signed by the majority notes city money went into building the hotel and the city receives tax revenue from its occupancy.

It says a successor clause would assure employees that a new owner would continue "their hard-earned rights to access health care and other benefits."

A 2006 contract made the Sheraton the first union hotel in Sonoma County. The owners have said the hotel is not for sale.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.

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