Not All Democratic Candidates Are Careful To Stay In Union Hotels

Democrats are expected to steer their money toward union businesses, but some campaigns have spent money at nonunion hotels, even ones under boycott.

The presidential campaign of South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg racked up a hefty hotel tab in Miami in June, spending $112,890 at the Hilton Miami Downtown in the days leading up to and following the first Democratic debate. 

The large sum wouldn’t be hard to justify. Buttigieg’s committee, Pete for America, was hosting staff and donors for the week as he and his aides held strategy sessions to propel his climb in the polls. But the campaign would have some explaining to do when it came to the lodging they chose.

The Hilton Miami Downtown is not a union hotel. There are five other hotels in the Miami area where workers have union representation ― hotels that organized labor, a pillar of the Democratic base, would no doubt rather see top-tier candidates steering their money to.

It was not the first time Buttigieg’s campaign patronized a nonunion hotel in Miami. Between March and May of this year, Pete for America spent more than $11,000 at a nonunion Marriott near the airport, according to campaign finance filings. The campaign also booked nonunion hotels in Washington, Boston, Las Vegas, New York, Los Angeles and the Bay Area, all of which have union options.

“We try to use union hotels whenever possible,” Chris Meagher, a Buttigieg campaign spokesman, said in an email. Meagher said the Hilton was chosen “because of both its availability and proximity to the debate venue.” It’s possible the city’s union hotels could not accommodate the whole Buttigieg crew for the duration of their Miami foray.

The entire Democratic field has been courting unions for their support and endorsements in a crowded race, several of them pointing to their long track records as allies of labor. So HuffPost reviewed last quarter’s campaign filings for the top five candidates in most polls ― former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Buttigieg ― to see how particular they are about patronizing union hotels where possible. The lodging expenditures would include hotel stays by campaign staffers as well as the candidates themselves.

Their lodging expenditures were cross-referenced with the online “fair hotel” finder ― a creation of Unite Here, the country’s leading hospitality union ― which lists union hotels as well as hotels under a boycott or strike. The union said it keeps the hotel finder up to date.

There are many days on a campaign ― perhaps even most of them ― when staying at a union hotel isn’t feasible. Small and midsize towns in states like New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina simply won’t have them. But when they’re available, Democrats are supposed to stay in them, said Eddie Vale, a veteran of Democratic campaigns and the labor movement.

“Unions don’t expect campaigns to defy the laws of physics,” Vale said. “But if you’re in a city that has union hotels, union vendors, union rental cars, etc., then unions would expect you to use them.”

Vale added, “You should want to do it ― not just for the politics, but because we’re Democrats, we’re progressive, and we want to support union members.”

The expectation that Democrats work with union labor extends beyond individual campaigns. Before Milwaukee won the bid to host the Democratic National Convention next year, it pledged to use union workers for “all services, goods, equipment and facilities whenever feasible. Many unions were miffed by the DNC’s selection of Charlotte in 2012, because North Carolina has one of the lowest unionization rates in the country.

On the whole, most of the top five candidates appear to book union hotels when they’re a viable option, though Buttigieg’s campaign went with a mix of both union and nonunion. For some, it was virtually impossible to know how well a campaign toes the union line because they often book through Hotels.com, which doesn’t reveal the hotel that was used. Or they list the expenses under a hotel chain’s corporate name and address.

If you’re in a city that has union hotels ... then unions would expect you to use them. Eddie Vale, Democratic campaign veteran

In fairness to Buttigieg, he may look worse than some other candidates because his filings were the most detailed. Other candidates declined to provide full lists of their hotels when asked by HuffPost.

Most of Sanders’ hotel expenditures were attributed to Hotels.com. But of 10 hotels listed by name that are in major cities with several union lodging options, all were union.

Harris’ campaign tended to book union but had several nonunion properties in the mix, particularly in Washington and Southern California. The campaign also spent nearly $1,000 in April at the Line Hotel in Los Angeles, which was ― and remains ― the subject of a boycott. Unite Here members at The Line have been working without a contract for seven months and have urged travelers not to spend money there.

Staying at a hotel under boycott is different from staying at a hotel that is nonunion. While unions prefer that their supporters patronize unionized workplaces, they explicitly ask them not to spend money at businesses that are the subject of a labor dispute. It isn’t clear whether the Harris campaign was aware of the situation at The Line.

The majority of the Warren campaign’s bookings were through Hotels.com. The handful of hotels in major cities that were listed by name were all union, with the exception of Palms Place in Las Vegas. That property is part of the Palms Casino Resort, which is also under boycott. (The Palms is owned by Republican megadonors who have refused to recognize the results of a union election there.) The Warren campaign spent around $450 there, but otherwise booked union hotels in Las Vegas and Reno.

A Warren spokesman said via email that “when available, Elizabeth and our campaign stay in union hotels.”

Meagher, the Buttigieg spokesman, said that when booking flights and hotels, the campaign uses a list of approved brands from Union Plus, a nonprofit founded by the AFL-CIO union federation. While chains on that list, such as Hilton, may have union workers in their ranks, it doesn’t mean that a particular location is unionized. One Hilton may be union while the next is nonunion, even within the same city.

Meagher said the Buttigieg campaign also checks hotels against the fair hotel guide to make sure a given hotel is not under boycott.

Most of the Biden campaign’s hotels last quarter were booked through Hotels.com, and many that weren’t simply list the hotel chain’s corporate headquarters. The exceptions ― the Intercontinental in New York; the Park MGM and the Vdara in Vegas; the Omni Shoreham in Washington; and the W Los Angeles ― are union properties.

Unions are now enjoying renewed clout within the Democratic Party, thanks in part to a surge of progressive activism. A cluttered presidential primary has helped as well, as candidates compete with ideas on how to rejuvenate the ranks of organized labor. Every single major Democratic candidate attended a forum last Saturday hosted by one of the most powerful unions in the country, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

D. Taylor, the president of Unite Here, said candidates like Buttigieg can always reach out for advice on where to stay in cities like Las Vegas.

“Hopefully he’ll ask us for a list of union hotels so he doesn’t make that mistake again,” he said.