When Eric Gill was elected to the top job at Hawaii’s biggest hospitality and health care union in May 2019, it might have seemed like little more than a formality – a long-time union leader continuing to hold the job he’s had for years.

But officials of the U.S. Department of Labor have a different view. A labor department investigation, finalized in March 2020, found multiple violations of the federal law governing local union elections: violations serious enough to require a new election – this time monitored by the department.

Now, as hotel and hospital workers submit their ballots to decide who will run the 11,000-member chapter, opposition candidates are crying foul. They say union officials are blocking members from voting or running for union leadership positions by relying on membership rules the union should waive during the pandemic.

Eric Gill, the long-time head of Unite Here Local 5 pictured here in 2018, is facing a new election battle to control the union after federal labor officials found the union violated labor laws when conducting a union officer election in 2019. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

Members can mail in ballots and will be able to vote in person on Aug. 26.

Union officials declined interview requests. But a Department of Labor official confirmed that members who didn’t pay dues during the pandemic will have to pay at least one month’s dues plus a reinstatement fee to be able to vote in the election.

Meanwhile, would-be candidates who didn’t stay up to date on dues can’t run at all, said Michael Petersen, the labor department’s regional public affairs director in San Francisco.

Such “good-standing” rules are common, Petersen said.

But some members argue the COVID-19 pandemic changed Hawaii’s hospitality industry so much that members shouldn’t be kept from voting or running for positions for not paying dues.

Hernando Ramos Tan, an engineer at The Royal Hawaiian hotel who is running to unseat Gill as the union’s financial secretary-treasurer, the top job, said it’s absurd not to give financially strapped hospitality workers a break from paying dues. He accused Gill and other incumbent union leaders of using bylaws to suppress voters and to eliminate Ramos Tan from fielding a full slate of opposition candidates.

Ramos Tan noted that landlords have let tenants defer rent payments and banks have given borrowers extensions on mortgage payments because of COVID-19.

“Everybody is trying to be nice during the pandemic, but your union won’t give you a break: you’re supposed to be up-to-date,” he said.

“This is his way to prevent me from getting a slate” of opposition candidates, Ramos Tan said of Gill.

Gill declined to comment, saying it would be improper to discuss the situation as ballots are being handed out and members are sending them in. However, Gill did point out that the current election is being monitored by the U.S. Department of Labor to ensure Ramos Tan and others are treated fairly.

“No rules were bent against him,” Gill said. “The rules for running for office haven’t changed and shouldn’t change.”

Who Can Run For Leadership Posts

Bryant de Venecia, a spokesman for Local 5, declined requests for an interview, but instead issued a statement saying that who can vote and run in elections is governed by the Unite Here International Union constitution, local bylaws and Department of Labor regulations.

“These rules have not changed since the last internal union election,” the statement said. “However, due to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and the large number of workers that have been laid off from Local 5 jobs, the Department of Labor and the Union have agreed to expand the number of Local 5 workers that will receive mail-in ballots to ensure that they have sufficient time and opportunity to meet eligibility requirements to vote in the internal election.”

Contrary to the union’s statement, the Unite Here International Union constitution lets the local unions decide in its bylaws who can vote and run.

Petersen, the labor department spokesman, confirmed the union has modified the rules somewhat to let more people vote. Under an agreement between the union and the department, members don’t have to be completely caught up with back dues, as the bylaws require. Instead, they will be able to vote if they’ve paid their dues for June, plus a $125 “reinstatement” or “good standing” fee, Petersen said.

Some workers say that’s not good enough. Manuel Malihan, who works as a housekeeper at the Sheraton Waikiki, said he was especially strapped for cash because a work injury put him out of commission for almost a year before the pandemic, and he had recently returned to work when COVID-19 struck.

Because he had been off the job, Malihan qualified for only $121 per week in unemployment pay and none of the generous federal unemployment benefits paid to workers at the time.

Half the opposition candidates seeking to unseat incumbents in an election for UNITE HERE Local 5 leadership, which will be overseen by federal officials, have been found ineligible to run for missing dues payments during the pandemic. Hernando Ramos Tan

Opeta Ofagalilo, an electrician at the Sheraton who wanted to run as a trustee, said it is especially unfair to penalize candidates who were out of work for not paying dues when some union staff and leadership were still employed and making money.

“They should understand, this was during the pandemic,” Ofagalilo said. “We were out of work for more than a year.”

More than a dozen opposition candidates can’t run because they missed payments, he said.

“Half of the slate is not qualified to run because of the union dues,” he said.

At stake in the election are lucrative jobs in a labor organization that wields considerable political power.

The union reported $8.7 million in revenue for 2018, according to its most recent tax return. Gill earned just less than $114,000 in total compensation.

Also up for grabs are more than a dozen other positions, including the No. 2 post of union president, currently held by Gemma Weinstein, which paid about $93,000 in total compensation.

According to the Department of Labor, the union agreed to hold the new election after a department investigation found the union violated ballot secrecy requirements by printing serial numbers on ballots that could be used to identify how members had voted.

In addition, it found that union and employer funds were improperly used when union staff and members campaigned on employer property during work hours and that the union destroyed certain ballots and records it was supposed to safeguard for a year, another statutory violation.

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