Union’s Win Over Short-Term Rentals Shows Its True Colors
Zachary Yost /
Union leaders really love to brag about things they don’t do.
You often can find them going on about how much they help and empower workers to fight the oppression of unscrupulous employers who will do anything to squeeze more profit out of their employees.
But reality doesn’t always match these claims. Recently released Labor Department filings for Unite Here Local 25, in Washington, D.C., reveal another egregious instance of union greed.
Primarily comprised of hotel workers, Local 25 was one of the most vocal advocates for heavily regulating Airbnb and other short-term residential rentals in the District of Columbia.
The D.C. Council in November unanimously passed legislation to strictly regulate short-term rentals.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson now threatens to deny building permits for new government buildings until Mayor Muriel Bowser, a fellow Democrat who opposed the law, implements it.
If the law goes into effect and survives legal challenges, D.C. residents no longer will be able to rent out properties that aren’t their primary residence. Residents also will be unable to rent out their homes for more than 90 days when they are not present.
This aspect of the law is especially worrisome in a city that has so many military and diplomatic personnel who often are away for significant parts of the year.
The D.C. Council grudgingly amended the bill to allow applications for exemptions to the 90-day limit, but more bureaucracy no doubt will be an impediment to busy city residents.
Unite Here Local 25 had advocated tougher regulations for years. The Washington Post reported in 2015 that “hotel workers in D.C. propose some of the strictest Airbnb regulations in the country.”
The local is honest about its selfish reasons for regulating Airbnb and similar operations. Several Twitter posts make it clear that union leaders viewed the regulations as necessary to eliminate threats to union jobs.
The Washington Times reported that the D.C. Council vote was greeted by cheers from union representatives. “About 100 of them in red shirts packed the council chambers Tuesday, having endorsed the bill as a means to protect hotel jobs,” the newspaper wrote.
The news site Curbed D.C. reported that John Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of the local, ran up to the dais to shake Mendelson’s hand before the council chairman (whose 2012 campaign received $1,500 from the union) “politely shoo[ed] Boardman away.”
Yet the recently posted Labor Department filings reveal that the local’s support for regulating its competition went far beyond mere cheerleading: The union spent $130,000 in advertising during the run-up to the council’s vote.
Sure, it’s unsurprising that a group would look out for its own economic interest. D.C. area hotels also supported the increased regulation because it hurts their competition.
But a union’s motivation is supposedly different than that of a private business. The principle of solidarity supposedly extends to all workers, not just those paying dues.
According to the local’s own website, “every day, unions are on the front lines of the real fight for democracy and justice.”
But the local apparently takes its idea of justice from the old adage: “That’s why they call it justice—because it’s just us.”
Washington, D.C., is one of the most expensive places in the country to live. To make it in the district, many of those who rent out their homes and spare bedrooms and basements rely on the additional income they make through Airbnb.
Reason magazinerecounts the story of Lara Hawketts, a D.C. resident who lost her job and ended up renting her family’s basement out on Airbnb. Eventually, she started a business managing Airbnb rentals for friends who didn’t want to deal with the hassle.
The new regulations will make it illegal for her to do so, however, since they require that you live in the unit you’re renting out.
If unions such as Unite Here actually practiced what they preached, they’d extend their solidarity to people such as Hawketts. Instead, they’re throwing her and thousands of other D.C. residents under the bus, along with the thousands of regular folks from out of town who now will be forced to pay higher prices to visit the nation’s capital.
It’s understandable that unions want to limit competition, but with over 9,000 additional hotel rooms planned by developers and under construction (more than the total number of D.C. Airbnb listings), there will be plenty of work to go around. With so much industry growth in the pipeline, one can’t help but think that in this instance the union cared more about preserving its power than protecting members’ jobs.
To power-hungry unions such as Unite Here, it doesn’t matter if you are a worker, a capitalist, or a needy Airbnb host. If you don’t pay your dues, you’re bound to lose.