Thomas Breen photos

Local 217’s Josh Stanley with Graduate hotel worker Jacqueline Sims.

The Graduate New Haven hotel on Chapel St.

Graduate New Haven hotel employees, union organizers, and labor-friendly politicians celebrated the city’s first new hotel worker union in a quarter century by praising an unexpected ally — an employer that voluntarily chose to recognize and negotiate, rather than fight.

That celebration took place Thursday afternoon on the Upper Green in the shadow of Yale’s Phelps Gate on College Street.

Several dozen UNITE HERE union leaders, members, and supporters rallied to recognize a ratified three-year contract signed by the members of the new employee union at the Graduate New Haven hotel, formerly the Hotel Duncan, at 1155 Chapel St.

That union first came into being a few months ago, when the hotel employer voluntarily recognized the 25-person union — represented by UNITE HERE Local 217 — and began negotiating a new contract.

Hill Alder Ron Hurt.

Hotel workers and labor organizers and local and state politicians alike praised not just the Graduate hotel employees who pushed for union recognition and contract negotiation, but also the college-themed boutique hotel employer that decided to work with rather than against that nascent labor-organizing effort.

The Graduate New Haven hotel provides a model,” Hill Alder Ron Hurt said at the top of the rally’s speaking lineup. The employer didn’t union bust. They recognized the mandate when 80 percent of the workers submitted cards” during the initial petition drive calling for a union at the Graduate.

They chose to recognize the union, then they bargained in good faith and quickly got to an agreement. … Let all employers treat their workers in the same way.”

Democratic state treasurer candidate Erick Russell (above) and secretary of the state candidate Maritza Bond (below) at Thursday’s union rally. Both recently received UNITE HERE endorsements for their respective runs for statewide office.

Local 217 Secretary Treasurer Josh Stanley agreed. They did the right thing,” he said about the hotel’s management.

At a time when major national employers like Amazon and Starbucks are actively resisting employee unionization drives, the Graduate hotel did the opposite: quickly recognizing that a vast majority” of workers at the hotel wanted to join a union, and that those workers had the backing of everyone from Mayor Justin Elicker to the Board of Alders to leaders in the city’s other UNITE HERE locals, which includes Yale’s blue-collar and clerical and technical worker unions.

Stanley noted that the Graduate New Haven hotel worker union is the first new hotel union in New Haven since the Omni’s employees joined Local 217 in the late 1990s.

A representative from Graduate New Haven management and from the hotel’s parent company, Graduate Hotels, did not respond to requests for comment by the publication time of this article. Click here to read a 2019 article about how Graduate Hotels’ then-president said he was open to allowing for employees to unionize at the new boutique hotel. And click here to read a 2017 article about a UNITE HERE member-backed effort to stop the conversion of the 90-room Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotel before the Graduate owners were able to secure all building permits needed to move ahead with their plans. 

UNITE HERE supporters at Thursday’s rally.

What are the terms of this new contract?

According to a one-page handout provided by Stanley, the new contract was signed on July 22 and runs through June 30, 2025. 

The newly signed labor accord will see wages rise to $20 per hour by July 2024 for non-tipped workers and to $17.25 per hour in that same period for tipped workers. Employees will be able to participate in a defined benefit pension plan, receive time-and-a-half pay for overtime on any day they work more than nine hours and on holidays, join UNITE HERE’s healthcare plan that will see the employer cover 70 percent of premiums starting January 2023, and access a grievance procedure with union representation to resolve workplace problems.

Jacqueline Sims, 25, has worked at the hotel’s front desk since the hotel opened in 2019. She recalled joining her colleagues on April 27 to let their general manager know that they were going to file for a union election. 

We wore our buttons, we put up posters. we had a union cake in the breakroom, and we had a picket,” she said about the petition drive. Only two weeks later, the hotel agreed to a fast and peaceful process, and we won our union.”

Thanks to the new contract, she said, she’ll get a $6 raise over the the agreement, better healthcare,” and access to a pension that will make it worth it to stick around.” She said it will help her pay for rent, save money, and afford to go to both therapy and her eye doctor.

This new contract will change my life,” she said, and I’m ready to no longer struggle.”

Graduate hotel workers and union members Esmeralda Gutierrez, Jessica Hay, and Veronica Sierra.

Graduate New Haven hotel baristas Esmeralda Gutierrez, 19, and Jessica Hay, 20, along with fellow Graduate hotel front desk worker Veronica Sierra, 19, were similarly enthusiastic about their new status as unionized workers covered by a contract.

Since we’ve gotten the union, I’ve been able to take two days off” instead of working nine days straight, as was sometimes the case when she first started back in November of last year, Gutierrez said. 

I’m helping support my family right now,” Hay said, and the better pay — and job security — that come with the union contract take a lot of weight” off her shoulders.

It just makes me so proud to be a part of” a group of employees who fought and won to form a union, Sierra said. She and Hay both said they were hired after the hotel voluntarily recognized the union. They said they get to reap the benefits of their colleagues’ hard work, and they hope to help other unions in town fight for their own better working conditions and to not be bullied” by resistant employers.

Fortunately, Sierra said, there was no employer bullying in this situation. 

Paul Seltzer (center) with fellow Local 33 members.

Thursday’s rally doubled as a campaign canvassing event. A host of local and statewide politicians — including Mayor Elicker, New Haven State Sens. Martin Looney and Gary Winfield, and statewide treasurer hopeful Erick Russell and secretary of the state hopeful Maritza Bond — pledged their allegiance to supporting workers’ rights to organize.

The last speaker of the night was Paul Seltzer, a graduate student teacher in Yale’s history department who is also the co-president of Local 33, the recently revived effort to get the university to recognize a graduate teacher union on campus.

Graduate hotel workers changed their workplace for the better, and we can do the same thing right here at Yale,” Seltzer said while standing alongside a dozen fellow Local 33 members. The Graduate hotel did things right by recognizing the union and settling a fair contract quickly. It’s a shame that other employers don’t follow their lead.”

Click on the video below to watch Thursday’s union rally in full.