The Hotel Trades Council, the union representing hotel workers around New York City, is surprisingly powerful. It’s one of the smaller unions, with under 35,000 members, but that belies its importance. The HTC is powerful because it commands one of the most powerful political operations of any union. That makes its endorsement especially useful so Mayor Bill de Blasio is surely happy to receive it.
Who are the members of the Hotel Trades Council?
As the union for hotel workers, HTC counts 32,000 members. They work in over 300 unionized hotels, motels, casinos, and other connected businesses including parking garages and spas, according to the union. HTC formed during the Great Depression as a merger between 15 different unions, so that hotel owners couldn’t play the individual unions off one another. That worked incredibly well over the years to the point where they represent about 75% of the hotel industry in New York City.
What makes them so special?
HTC isn’t the largest union. In fact, it’s relatively small.
A CUNY report found seven unions with larger memberships, including some unlikely suspects. SEIU, the Service Employees Industrial Union, has 246,080 members in New York City including 150,000 in SEIU 1199 (hospital workers) and 70,000 in 32BJ (building services including janitors). AFSCME, which is often referred to by the name of local organizations like District Council 37, represents over a hundred thousand city and state workers. But there are even 20,000 more unionized actors than hotel workers. Nevertheless, it’s the hotel workers union that is formidable.
The Hotel Trades Council, led by its energetic president Peter Ward, works for their endorsed candidates, and for the issues they care about. That’s unusual–most unions will just put out a press release and then hold a rally or meet with elected officials to talk about their issues but they aren’t known for strenuous lobbying. As one consultant told the Observer several years ago:
“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.’”
Instead, HTC has an active political operation. They run canvass operations, knocking on their members’ doors to get them out to vote for their endorsed candidates. Their members go out in districts talking to neighbors and hold public rallies for their candidates. That’s especially important in primaries, which are often sleepy affairs. A large contingent of hotel workers can provide the campaign they support with a shot of momentum and a powerful force of volunteers.
What do they advocate for?
The Hotel Trades Council is aggressive about their issues, too. Just this week, the City Council passed a bill to restrict hotels from converting their rooms into condos, which would imperil their workers jobs. They’ve also advocated for paid sick leave, affordable housing, a higher minimum wage, and pre-K for all (which de Blasio now wants to expand to 3-K for three-year-olds). They also were strong backers of Gov. Cuomo’s successful proposal to make union dues tax-deductible. All are issues that help their members who are heavily female and often lower-income.
However, perhaps most important has been their work against Airbnb, since tourists who stay at an Airbnb don’t patronize the hotels where HTC members work. The union responded by organizing the ShareBetter campaign against Airbnb. ShareBetter, run by Neal Kwatra, the former political director for HTC, spent millions to get their message out and successfully pushed for stronger enforcement against illegal hotels, including many Airbnb listings. The new legislation, heralded by the Hotel Trades Council, imposed much higher penalties on the thousands of Airbnb hosts illegally renting their apartments.
Who do they back?
Most of their candidates have been progressive Democrats like State Sen. Daniel Squadron, Congresswoman Grace Meng, and state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. It’s not a coincidence that Schneiderman aggressively pushed back against Airbnb’s attempts to work in New York, arguing that most of their listing violate the law.
However, not all their candidates have been winners, or progressive. In 2014, they bucked the tide to support Sen. Jeff Klein, the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference that has aligned itself with the Republican Party. They also supported Christine Quinn’s unsuccessful campaign for Mayor. She lost to now-Mayor Bill de Blasio.
With their endorsement of Mayor de Blasio’s re-election campaign, expect them to continue steering policy in City Hall over the next four years. That’s good for many progressive priorities but not so positive for Airbnb users. The Hotel Trades Council will almost certainly continue their effort to make it more difficult for New Yorkers to list their apartments on Airbnb. That also means it’ll be harder for tourists to find a place to stay on the site.