Courtesy of Hannah Schmitt

Workers at the Graduate Hotel signed in July a newly negotiated union contract with the boutique hotel, ending an organizing drive that saw them become the first new hotel union in New Haven in 25 years. 

The contract, which was negotiated after the workers decided to join UNITE HERE! Local 217, which covers hospitality workers across Connecticut, including at the Omni Hotel, saw workers win higher wages, a better healthcare plan and a new grievance procedure. 

“I was actually a little shocked with how, I won’t say easy, but with how agreeable and how reasonable things actually were from us to the people who were handling it on the end of the Graduate,” said AJ Colella, a houseperson at the hotel and member of the bargaining committee. “It was only a little bit back and forth.”

Five months ago, a majority of workers at the Graduate had poured into the lobby, waving signs and chanting pro-union slogans, in order to give their manager a petition demanding that hotel management recognize their union. 

The workers, who sought a union covering the entire hotel, from housekeepers to the front desk, began organizing the union back in February, and by late April, 80 percent of the bargaining unit had signed union cards, signaling their intention to unionize. 

Management at the Graduate decided to voluntarily recognize the union, and negotiations began.

“I felt so empowered just in that moment, you know, sticking up for myself,” Colella said of the April action. “Really, it was this sense of togetherness that I don’t think I’ve ever really felt at a job before.” 

National management for the Graduate Hotel chain did not respond to a request for comment. 

Darryl Lyte, the food and beverage manager at the hotel, learned about the union drive on the day of the march.  

“It’s always a surprise, working with the team,” Lyte said. “But at the same time, I’ve been on both sides, management and hourly. … I value all the employees that work here — that people should have a voice.”

Workers said the hotel is currently grappling with understaffing. They described working jobs beyond their responsibilities and covering more shifts than they could, with some working 16 hour days.

Jackie Sims, who works at the Graduate’s front desk and spoke at the April rally that kicked off the union drive, had never thought about unionizing before she was invited to a meeting on the topic by two of her coworkers in February. After the meeting, she was inspired to organize one. 

Sandy, a housekeeper for the Graduate who said she was not involved in the union organizing because she had to take care of elderly parents, was nonetheless enthusiastic about the prospect of a union.

“I heard about it, I said I was all in,” Sandy told the News. “I know unions are there to help the employee. So I said ‘it can’t get much worse.’’’

Soon after the Graduate workers marched, multiple elected officials, including New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker and 12 members of the Board of Alders, stopped by to show support for the union drive. 

Within two weeks, the Graduate agreed to recognize the union and negotiate a contract with the workers. 

“In both recognizing the union and coming to the table to negotiate a contract in good faith, the company did the right thing,” Josh Stanley GRD ’18, Local 217’s secretary-treasurer told the News.

“I know that there have been much lengthier negotiations,” Lyte said. “I think it was a quick response. They found the quickest and best resolution.”

The workers and hotel management began negotiating a contract, with both Colella and Sims serving on the workers’ bargaining team. By all accounts, the negotiating was relatively peaceful, with the goal of coming to an agreement that worked for all parties.

Lyte, as a manager, expressed optimism. “Now you always want to get better, do things better and more efficiently. So it definitely feels as though things are trending in the right direction.” 

Ultimately, the contract included a number of wins for the workers, including overtime pay for workdays over nine hours and on holidays, the ability to join the union’s healthcare plan and eventually a defined benefit pension plan. 

The contract also included substantial raises for all workers. The lowest paid non tipped workers, who were making $14 an hour before the union, saw their pay raised immediately to $17.50 an hour, with a series of scheduled raises due to bring the wages up to $20 an hour by August 2024.   

Sandy noted several positive differences after the ratification of the union contract. “We have more people, it’s running more smoothly, it’s an increase in pay,” she said. “And I like that there’s somebody out here for us.”

The Graduate Hotel is located at 1151 Chapel St.

Nathaniel Rosenberg is City Editor for the News. He previously served as Audience Editor, where he managed the News's newsletter content, covered cops and courts and housing and homelessness for the City Desk. Originally from Silver Spring, MD, he is a junior in Morse College majoring in history.