Airbnb finds a union it can work with after failed efforts

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(Bloomberg) – Airbnb Inc. cafeteria workers are joining the United Auto Workers, a new twist in the home-rental company’s troubled relationship with organized labor.

The United Auto Workers won a union contract covering nearly 150 cafeteria workers at four Airbnb facilities. It’s the latest development in a unionization trend among tech companies’ sub-contracted staff.

“Every worker should be treated with dignity and justice,” Chris Lehane, Airbnb’s global head of policy and public affairs, said in an emailed statement Thursday afternoon. “Airbnb has great respect for the labor movement, and we are glad to have UAW represent workers who provide services to our employees.”

The workers, who are employed by the food service contractor Bon Appétit and work in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, unionized in November and completed contract negotiations last month. Employees will receive raises of at least 5 percent in the initial year of the contract as well as major improvements to their benefits, according to the union.

“We believe the dishwashers, servers and chefs working for Bon Appétit and serving Airbnb employees are now among the highest paid food service workers in California,” Gary Jones, a UAW regional director covering 17 Western and Southwestern states, said in a statement.

While the relationship between businesses and unions is often fraught, the news is a coup of sorts for Airbnb. The company has been battling organized labor elsewhere, while trying to find a labor organization it can build a kinship with.

Unite Here, a hospitality union, has played a major role in funding, planning and mobilizing opposition to Airbnb, citing its alleged removal of affordable housing units from the market and displacement of hotel employees. The New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council, a Unite Here affiliate, has partnered with the hotel industry to successfully push for stricter regulation of the company and to fund a campaign that includes deploying private investigators for undercover stings designed to prove Airbnb hosts in the city are in fact operating illegal hotels. “We’re the group of people that play by the rules that are fighting back a massive assault from gigantic moneyed interests,” Peter Ward, president of the group, said last year.

In 2016, opposition from Unite Here as well as affordable housing groups helped scuttle a potential deal that was in the works between Airbnb and the Service Employees International Union. The effort would have encouraged Airbnb hosts to hire house cleaners who were union members. After failing to reach a deal with SEIU, Airbnb teamed up last September with another labor group, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, to start encouraging hosts to pledge to pay their cleaners at least $15 an hour.

Share Better, a group backed by Unite Here, the hotel industry, housing groups and elected officials, said Thursday that the new Airbnb effort doesn’t go far enough. “When Airbnb voluntarily recognizes and signs a fair contract with a union for their 2,500 person global workforce, then we will congratulate them for taking an authentically pro-union position,” Austin Shafran, a spokesman for Share Better, wrote in an emailed statement. “But cherry-picking certain unions to work with is just another manipulative attempt by a company dealing with one public relations crisis after another.”

Airbnb cafeteria workers join thousands of sub-contracted service workers who have unionized within the past few years on the campuses of tech giants like Facebook Inc. and Yahoo! Those include shuttle bus drivers who have joined the Teamsters, security guards who are in SEIU and cafeteria workers who have joined Unite Here. Organizers credit those victories in part to the willingness of major tech giants to intervene with their contractors in order to make it easier for workers to unionize without fear that they will get fired or the contractor will get dumped.

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