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A few weeks ago, the New York Hotel Trades Council ratified a new contract for hotel workers. And most headlines focused on one detail: housekeepers were to be given panic buttons. The attention was understandable, coming after the sexual abuse scandal allegedly involving former IMF chief, Dominique Strauss Kahn. But the bigger story it turns out is the long-term contract the hotel workers union and the industry negotiated.
As NPR's Margot Adler reports, the deal is unusual at a time when many unions are fighting for survival.
MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: The new contract, which goes into effect in July, gives a 29 percent raise over seven years and guarantees full medical, dental and optical benefits to 30,000 maids, dishwashers and other hotel employees.
PETER WARD: Most importantly, it provides long-term economic stability to hotel workers in New York City.
ADLER: That's Peter Ward, the president of the New York Hotel Trades Council. This is not a time when unions are viewed favorably. Here's how Fox Business News reporter Sandra Smith described the contract to anchor Stuart Varney.
SANDRA SMITH: A 29 percent increase, this is a long-term contract.
STUART VARNEY: Yes, it is.
SMITH: A seven year contract, not just medical, dental, optical, no out of pocket expenses. This is a nightmare.
VARNEY: A nightmare for who?
SMITH: Well, obviously for everybody who has to foot the bill now that the union's demanded this sort of pay for hotel maids: $60,000 a year.
ADLER: They get that salary after seven years. But when you look a little closer, this union, along with the Hotel Association of New York City, which represents more than 260 hotels here, has provided health benefits for workers for decades. They have four of their own clinics, they have doctors, pharmacies. And Ward argues that, working closely with management, they have been able to jointly provide broad services to 80,000 workers, dependents and retirees.
WARD: For about 35 percent less than the open market. They're not for profits. There are no corporate jets. There are no corporate advertising. And a lot of credit really belongs to management; they've invested a lot of money, bought real estate.
ADLER: So they can accurately project costs over seven years, says Ward, and use the money they save for wages and pensions.
The new contract was agreed to five months before the current contract expires. Both sides described it as a win-win. Lisa Linden is a spokesperson for the Hotel Association of New York City.
LISA LINDEN: We are delighted that in a cooperative and constructive spirit, we were able to reach this early agreement. It's good for the hotels, for the union and for the city of New York.
ADLER: But there's a deeper reason for a contract like this. Listen to this throwaway line by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in his State of the City Address in January.
MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: In the last year, we hit a record 50 million but you and I know we can do better. This is New York City.
ADLER: More than 50 million tourists came to New York City last year, a record. Hotel rooms were above 80 percent occupancy, the average room rate was close to $300 a night. Hotel gross revenues about double that of any other city.
Harley Shaiken, is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in labor issues. He argues that this contract harkens back to the labor contracts of 50 years ago, when unions were much stronger.
PROFESSOR HARLEY SHAIKEN: When they were regularly able to deliver these kinds of gains for their members.
ADLER: And workers had an easy path to the middle class. Shaiken also argues that the money workers earn will go back to the city.
SHAIKEN: They're spending much of that $60,000 a year in the New York economy.
ADLER: But perhaps it's just that tourism is an engine that is allowing one part of New York's economy to flourish, benefiting both industry and unions. If our economy improves, will there be more such stories?
As for those panic buttons, they were originally introduced as legislation by New York Assemblyman Rory Lancman, who noticed that his office had them.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE RORY LANCMAN: I've never had to use the button. Fortunately, being a member of the Assembly is not nearly as dangerous as being a hotel worker.
ADLER: A couple of New York hotels have already put such a system in place and within a year they will be in all hotels under this contract. But union officials say of 40 issues in the contract, it's about number 38 on their list.
Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.