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Sunday, October 17, 1999

Doug Grow: When union gets going, hotel checks in with INS

Doug Grow / Star Tribune

Looking to grasp the meaning of ''exploitation?'' Just check into the Holiday Inn Express in downtown Minneapolis.On Wednesday, eight workers at the hotel suddenly found themselves in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The six women and two men, who are in the country illegally, were turned over to the INS by hotel management seemingly because they dared to become active in their union.

Supporters of the workers say that management had no problem with the workers' documentation before they helped lead a union-organizing effort at the hotel. But after the union was voted in, and just weeks before negotiations were to begin, management called the INS with "concerns" about the Social Security numbers of some of the workers. The undocumented ones, who were members of the union's negotiating committee, almost certainly will be deported.

In the wake of the incident, feelings of betrayal are running deep among Latinos and labor and religious leaders -- perhaps even among INS officials.

"We were told by INS that the INS did not want to get into the business of union busting or be used as a tool for vengeance," said the Rev. Ed Leahy, who serves Latinos as a priest at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in south Minneapolis. "But the INS was a chump in this. The INS was played like a puppet."

The INS doesn't really deny Leahy's anger-filled statement. Curtis Aljets, INS regional director, said he too believes that his agency was used by the Holiday Inn Express. He said the INS received a call from the hotel saying that some workers seemed to have suspicious Social Security numbers.

"The employer tipped us off," Aljets said. "We weren't aware that there was recruiting activity or a bargaining activity going on. If we had it to do over again, we probably wouldn't do it."

Only Kevin Koenig, general manager of the Holiday Inn Express, said that the call the hotel placed to the INS wasn't in retaliation for union activity. He said he had a duty as a good citizen to call once he learned that there were undocumented workers employed at the hotel.

So it was just coincidence that he discovered the workers were undocumented only after they played leadership roles in forming a union and took positions on the bargaining committee?

"It is totally coincidence," Koenig said. "But I don't want to talk about it. It's a sensitive issue."

Koenig's sensitivity comes a little late for his former employees.

Some background: The Holiday Inn Express has been open for about 18 months. According to leaders of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 17, the hotel was paying lower wages to its staff of about 20 workers than most hotels in the region. In August, those workers, in a close vote, opted to join the union. After much stalling by management, negotiations for the hotel's first union contract were to begin Nov. 9.

But the bargaining dynamics changed Wednesday. Workers told union leaders that Koenig called a staff meeting for that morning. One by one, workers were taken into his office and, with the door closed, were confronted by Koenig and an INS official.

"The people who were carted away made up our negotiating committee," said Martin Goff, organizing director for the union. But Goff said Koenig's apparent effort to lash at the union will backfire. He said Koenig has stiffened the resolve of union members, and he predicted that the manager will have a difficult time finding replacement workers, because word of what happened has spread quickly through the Latino community.

Jaye Rykunyk, the union's principal officer, said the Holiday Inn Express action defies the informal arrangements that Twin Cities-area businesses, especially hotels and restaurants, count on. She said there are more than 30,000 undocumented Latino workers in the region and if all were deported, "not a single hotel or restaurant would be able to operate."

Typically, she said, the INS warns either the union or management if it is going to check documentation of workers at an establishment. That warning allows workers to be notified. Those who don't have valid documentation quickly move to a new workplace.

Aljets said employers are required to hire workers with proper documents. But employers are not required to inform the INS if they discover someone they've hired is not in the country legally; the employer need only terminate the employee.

It's a system of winks and nudges that serves all. But it's also a system that can leave workers at the mercy of employers.

Leahy says the actions of Holiday Inn Express management remind him of the behavior of patrons in Mexico's old hacienda system.

"The patron was the benevolent caregiver who treated his slaves as his own family," Leahy said. "As long as they did as he said, he treated them kindly, but as soon as they tried to exert any independence, he would crack down. This guy [Koenig] reminds me of that. He thought he treated the workers nice, but as soon as they asserted themselves and said they had rights to be treated with dignity and to have things like benefits, he turned on them and called the INS. What sort of man would do this?"

Leahy will lead a candlelight vigil outside of the hotel beginning at 7 p.m. Monday.