On the night last month when Grace Meng won a tightly contested Democratic primary for a new Congressional seat in Queens, she took the stage at a packed campaign party and told the story of her run. It was rough going for a while, she said. But then, “Peter Ward and the Hotel Trades Council took a chance on me and they came on board. HTC is at the forefront of modern organizing and their muscle and people have been the spine of our efforts.”
Later that night, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and City Comptroller John Liu reached out, congratulating Mr. Ward on his role in helping push Ms. Meng over the edge.
It was the union’s first real foray into federal elections, and the three mayoral hopefuls already knew what the rest of the city may soon find out: that Mr. Ward, 54 and the head of the hotel workers union for the last 15 years, has quietly become perhaps New York’s most powerful labor boss.
“He is pound for pound the best labor leader in the city, bar none,” said Scott Levenson, a Democratic consultant. “He has taken what in every other city is a poverty-level job, where the business model of the industry relies on people collecting food stamps, and turned it into a job where people can support a family and have a home, a decent retirement. He is creating middle-class careers for New Yorkers.”
For most of the 1990s and early 2000s, the most powerful labor leader in New York State was Dennis Rivera, the head of 1199, the health-care workers union. Under Rivera, they were an unmovable force, bending governors to their will and electing a generation of office holders.
But Mr. Rivera left in 2007, and Patrick Gaspard, the union’s political director, followed soon after to take a job with the Obama administration. And now, despite boasting of a membership of just 30,000—by comparison, 1199 has more than 200,000 members in New York City alone, as does the teacher’s union, while DC37, the public employees union, has 125,000—it is HTC that lawmakers and their political consultants say has become the most sought-after endorsement in the city.
The reason, insiders say, is that most of the city’s union have been content for their political activity to be putting their stamp of approval on a press release. A few will try to contact their members to remind them to vote for the leadership’s preferred candidate, but almost no one will enlist their members in the kind of ground game that HTC does.
“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.’”
As the union has grown in relevance, Mr. Ward is an unlikely face for it. Hotel workers are mostly recently arrived immigrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America—Nafissatou Diallo, the Sofitel maid who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of rape was a member of the union, for example—but Mr. Ward is neither an immigrant himself nor the son or even the grandson of immigrants. Sitting in his office suite near Times Square, Mr. Ward instead looks and sounds like someone who organized dockworkers in the 1940s. Or better yet, with his close-cropped hair, gold-glinting watch and cufflinks, tight smile and Brooklyn accent, like someone who played a waterfront organizer in a 1940s movie.
He came to the union in 1979 after growing up in Marine Park, Brooklyn. His mother was a social worker. She died when he was 14. The union didn’t so much offer him a place to let him practice his ideals of social justice as it offered him a job. He started in the lowest slot, checking to make sure members paid their dues on time, soon became an organizer and now boasts that he has the longest tenure of anyone in the building. He has also never worked in a hotel, and he never graduated from college.
For most of Mr. Ward’s tenure at the union, HTC eschewed the grubby world of politics.
“I grew up in a union that operated on the premise that the value that we have to offer our members is our ability to have a powerful organization that can represent them on the shop floor and get them good contracts, and that was really all we should do,” Mr. Ward said. “Along the way, it became more and more clear to me that our members’ interests would be best served if they themselves had a high degree of political awareness and they themselves were working to get candidates elected, and if the candidates themselves view bread-and-butter issues the same way we do. Once you come to that conclusion, what are you supposed to do? Ignore that?”
In 2007, he could no longer. Boutique hotels were opening up across the city, oftentimes without union contracts. So Mr. Ward reached out to Neal Kwatra, a Queens-born son of Indian immigrants, who, after organizing riverboat casino workers in St. Louis right after college, had risen up through the ranks of UNITE HERE, HTC’s national organization, telling him, “We have to get our arms around this problem.”
The two began investigating how hotel construction was financed in the city, and began pushing lawmakers to include hotels in the massive projects undertaken in Coney Island, Willets Point, and at Hudson Yards. Moreover, the union pushed for the yet-to-be-opened hotels to be union shops.
HTC had an advantage over most unions because it was relatively small and tight-knit, which allowed the union to have close contact with shop stewards and members throughout the city. Mr. Kwatra and Mr. Ward began to compile a database of who made up the union. They mapped which languages members spoke, which churches and mosques they belonged to, which neighborhood associations they were members of, how their interpersonal skills were.
In 2008, the union put all of this to the test. Daniel Squadron, a 28-year-old former aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer, entered a Democratic primary against Marty Connor, a 30-year veteran of the State Senate who had long since outlived his usefulness. Beating an incumbent in a local race is tough; beating one in a primary is even tougher; and besting one who had risen to the leadership of his legislative body is considered all but impossible. The city’s entire political class and most labor unions lined up behind Mr. Connor.
Organizers with HTC concede now that they didn’t really even know that much about Mr. Squadron, but they wanted to test their political operation looked in the field. People who during the week were bellhops and hotel maids went door-to-door in neglected Latino and Asian portions of the district. A massive rally for Mr. Squadron was held at the Grand Harmony Restaurant in Chinatown.
“Their ability to marshal significant support when there was a huge risk in a longshot taking on an entrenched incumbent was really significant,” Mr. Squdaron said. “I don’t think anybody saw it coming.”
In the end, the young Mr. Squadron won by eight points, and he is now gearing up to run for public advocate, the city’s second-highest post.
Later that fall, the union made a strategic decision to end its longtime relationship with the Republicans in the State Senate and throw their lot in with the Democrats. The game plan was the same—flooding districts with volunteers on the days and weeks before election day, knocking on doors, hanging signs, holding meetings. In November, the GOP lost the State Senate for the first time in 40 years.
“I have worked in the labor movement for 13 years,” said Mr. Kwatra, who is now chief of staff to attorney general Eric Schneiderman. “I think it is fair to say that Peter is without a doubt the smartest, most strategic, most pragmatic leader I have worked with. If labor had more leaders like Peter Ward, it would not be struggling and on the defensive.”
In 2009, they helped elect nearly half a dozen members of the City Council and were one of the few unions to throw in behind Mayor Mike Bloomberg. “The mayor demonstrated to us that he had a real genuine sympathy for and affection for our union,” Mr. Ward said. “He had been in the trenches with us. And we thought his basic approach to development was ultimately better for the city than things that were being proposed by alternative candidates.”
Mr. Ward added, “We didn’t agree with him on a lot of issues, but there were some very important social issues we do agree with him on. Smoking in bars, for example. We think that is one of the best things he did, because our members die from secondhand smoke. We believe in his position on gay marriage, absolutely. Immigrants’ rights, without a doubt. And so we don’t agree with all of his policies about business, we agree that a lot of his policies about business are ultimately things that help grow the economy, and growing the economy is better than cutting.”
By 2009, under the eye of Mssrs. Ward and Kwatra, the union’s political operation had grown far beyond door knocking and sign waving. By then, hotel workers were trained in using the sophisticated software that campaigns use to track which voters had been contacted and how to train their service-sector colleagues in micro-targeting and in the rudiments of a get-out-the-vote operation.
“It was pretty incredible,” recalled Bradley Tusk, Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign manager, who credited HTC with helping the mayor over Bill Thompson. “It wasn’t like we were playing three-dimensional chess and they were playing checkers. We were playing chess, and they were playing chess!”
The union’s ascendance dovetails with a moment in which what they do is also in ascendance. Part of the reason that 1199 dominated the ’90s was that it coincided with an era of hospital expansion and massive increases in health costs. 32BJ, the building service workers union, grew during the ga-ga years of city development in the early ’2000s. Now, the city is breaking its own record for tourism every year, with more than 50 million people from around the country and the world coming to town annually.
The union estimates that already 75 percent of hotel rooms in the city are in a unionized hotel. And since 1990, for every New York job lost in manufacturing—for a century one of the city’s economic pillars—a job in the tourism industry has replaced it, according to Greg David, a columnist for Crain’s New York and author of Modern New York, a new book that cover the virtues of the tourism economy.
And like manufacturing for much of the 20th century, jobs in hotels can provide immigrants with limited language skills and limited education, a pathway to the middle class—the most recent contract that HTC signed with participating hotels goes through 2019, provides workers and their families with free health care, gives hotel maids a salary approaching $60,000 a year and gives protections to workers with uncertain immigration status.
“It is quite literally the best hotel contract on the planet,” said John Wilhelm, the president of UNITE HERE.
And part of the new contract makes organizing even easier, meaning that the union’s numbers, and its political sway, will only grow. When Genting, the Malaysian multinational corporation that is looking to build the state’s first freestanding casinos, came to New York, one of the first things they did was meet with Mr. Ward. And according to industry sources, other hotel chains looking to gain a foothold in New York have struggled to find lobbyists and consultants to advise them, since no one in the political sphere wanted to cross Mr. Ward.
Part of the secret to his success has been avoiding for the most part a confrontation approach with the hotels. Fight like hell for wages and benefits, yes, but keep the negotiations private. The growth of hotels, Mr. Ward understands, is crucial to the growth of his union—as of course is the 2013 mayoral race.
“We are looking for a [mayoral] candidate who supports our core values, the things that are important to us,” Mr. Ward said. “And who has a real genuine shot at winning.”