Roundtable discusses Trump, automation, and Airbnb

By: Katelyn Godoy
Photo of hotel hallway

In early December 2017, 38 undergraduate students in the School of Hotel Administration and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations had the opportunity to conduct a roundtable co-chaired by Richard Hurd, associate dean for external relations and a professor at the ILR School, and David Sherwyn ’86, JD ’89, professor of law at the Hotel School and academic director of the Cornell Institute for Hospitality Labor and Employment Relations (CIHLER).

Four leading industry experts from the hotel management and labor union fields were invited to the roundtable to discuss three current topics affecting the hospitality industry:

  • potential effects of the Trump administration and a new National Labor Relations Board (NLRB),
  • how automation is and could affect labor unions, and
  • the future of labor union and hotel management cooperation in the face of industry disruptors such as Airbnb.

Industry participants:

  • Michael D’Angelo, a labor and employment attorney and vice president of labor relations for Hyatt Hotels Corporation
  • Emma Ellsworth, vice president of UNITE HERE International Union and staff director for the New England Joint Board, a regional affiliate of UNITE HERE in the New England states
  • Marcos Escobar, director of Organizing Beyond Barriers Program, a recruitment and leadership development program at UNITE HERE
  • Joseph Farelli, partner at Pitta LLP, who practices in the areas of labor and employment law for both private and public sector clients. He is also currently an adjunct professor of Labor Relations Law and Employment Law at New York Law School.

Each session addressed a current or potential influence on the hospitality industry. Two pairs of students, one representing the hotel management perspective and the other the labor union perspective, kicked off each session topic with a brief introduction and potential suggestions before prompting discussion with a few questions.

Session 1: Effects of the Trump Administration on the hospitality industry

The roundtable’s first session addressed possible effects of the Trump administration and a new National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on the hospitality industry—specifically on joint employers, micro units, quick elections, and card check. The participants brought up the issue of contract neutrality, especially taking into account the recently-passed Joint-Employer Bill regarding owners’ and franchises’ status as joint-employers. The discussion also emphasized the importance of neutrality for the large amount of undocumented workers in the hospitality industry, and the very present influence of fear among these workers. These factors all contribute to significant pressure to provide a neutral environment that will offer solutions in everyone’s best interests.

“If you defer decisions until after a quick election, the number of hearings go down because board members lean more and more towards pleasing people, with the result of less unionization.” – Joseph Farelli

This led the group to debate the potential requirement for employers to digitally verify their employees’ Social Security numbers, as well as the economic impacts of immigration for federal contractors who have an agreement with the government to create seasonal workforces composed of foreign employees.

Session 2: Automation in hospitality

The second roundtable session discussed automation and what unions are doing as the world of work changes. The balance of automation-driven efficiency versus a “human touch” and hospitality service emerged as a major theme during the discussion, as well as how much of a role customer choice plays in influencing the pace of automation.

“Travelers expect very specific guest servicers. For instance, a business traveler’s needs and expectations are very different than what a family of four is looking for while on holiday. Everything depends on customer preferences.” – Michael D’Angelo

Automation also has the potential to fundamentally change how the hotel industry allocates its labor cost budget. Health insurance is the top contributor to labor costs; by downsizing on that instead of cutting costs through automation, Emma Ellsworth says, the workforce is not as drastically affected.

“Not every worker replaced by an advance in automation will necessarily be retrained to take on another role in the hotel or hospitality industry.” – Emma Ellsworth

Session 3: Airbnb and industry disruptors

The roundtable’s final session focused on the effect of Airbnb on the hotel industry and how unions and management could work together to help the industry and its employees. The roundtable participants deliberated over whether or not Airbnb provides valuable competition and opportunities for growth for the hotel and hospitality industry, as well as the possibility of unions working with hotels to combat Airbnb.

“Unions must keep Airbnb true to what it says it is—a home-sharing company. The union is not here to stop home-sharing but to regulate it.” – Marcos Escobar

Hotels have advantages over home-sharing businesses, such as dominance in the business traveler market, as well as in hospitality. However, as Michael D’Angelo pointed out, potential developments of Airbnb bring up the question of unionization of employees in a business that does not call itself a hotel, but operates as one.

You can learn more about the December 2017 roundtable participants here. Or learn more about the Cornell Institute for Hospitality Labor and Employment Relations.

—Written by Julianna Teoh, a student writer intern for the
Cornell SC Johnson College of Business