The cafeteria featuring La Gloria at the airport. Photo by Scott Ball.
San Antonio International Airport features several local and national restaurants and shops. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The leadership of three chambers of commerce in San Antonio have joined forces with the San Antonio Restaurant Association, the Real Estate Council and other groups to block a new request for proposals (RFP) for the city’s airport that could lead to union organizing.

Released Jan. 18, the RFP calls for the City to award one concessionaire the non-exclusive rights to operate or manage a combination of concessions consisting of specialty retail and food and beverage at the San Antonio International Airport.

But the document also includes what’s known as a labor peace agreement clause. Such an agreement would ensure that all solicitation documents and contracts for terminal concessions at the airport include a requirement to implement a labor peace agreement between the concessionaire and “any requesting labor organizations which represent or reasonably might represent employees working as part of the prime concession agreement.”

A labor peace agreement generally commits employees to avoid walk-outs and protests in exchange for providing them a safe environment to consider unionizing. In San Antonio, they would look to the local chapter of Unite Here, a hospitality union.

In speaking out against the rule in a letter on Wednesday, San Antonio Chamber of Commerce Richard Perez stated, “This provision stands in direct opposition to the Mayor and City Council’s goal of incentivizing, encouraging, and facilitating growth of small, local businesses.

“I fail to understand how forcing local business owners into a labor peace agreement, taking away their rights, and making it impossible for them to successfully run their businesses and represent our community is beneficial, encouraging, or supportive.”

Others voicing opposition through the Chamber’s joint statement include the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, Associated Builders and Contractors – South Texas Chapter, San Antonio Chapter of Associated General Contractors, San Antonio Manufacturers Association, San Antonio Real Estate Council, San Antonio Tourism Council, and the San Antonio Restaurant Association.

Randy Stokes, owner of the Barn Door Restaurant and board president of the San Antonio Restaurant Association which represents 800 local restaurants, told the Rivard Report he didn’t understand the need for the agreement, and worries that it will drive up the cost of doing business at the airport as well as push locally-owned businesses out.

San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Ramiro Cavazos released a letter stating that chamber members are also concerned the agreement may increase the costs of doing business at the airport.

“We believe this agreement is counterproductive to our members and their potential to do business at the airport, in addition to setting a dangerous tone for private small and large businesses throughout our city,” Cavazos stated.

Current tenants at the airport who are members of the Hispanic Chamber include restaurants La Gloria, La Frutería, Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, and UETA Duty Free.

A labor peace agreement is an arrangement between a union and an employer under which one or both sides agree to waive certain rights under federal law with regard to union organizing and related activity.

Such policies require a private sector employer to secure a labor peace agreement with a union as a condition of doing business at a facility, like an airport, in which a government entity asserts a “proprietary interest.”

While states like California, New York and Maryland have labor peace agreement laws on the books, others like Louisiana, Georgia and Tennessee have passed legislation prohibiting local governments from imposing labor peace ordinances. Last April, Austin’s City Council approved a provision requiring labor peace agreements as part of their proposals for concessionaires at Austin-Bergstrom Airport.

In 2015, Unite Here represented employees at two Hyatt hotels in San Antonio and established an agreement with hotel management on new five-year union contracts – the first union contracts at hotels on the San Antonio River Walk. The union has protested the construction of several downtown hotels, including the boutique hotel planned for Hemisfair.

The agreement contained regular raises for the hotels’ approximately 500 employees, including an average annual wage increase of approximately 4 percent for housekeepers over the life of the contract.

Councilman Manny Peláez (D8), a labor attorney and former member of the Hispanic Chamber’s executive board, issued a statement on Friday, Feb. 2, that urged further open and public discussion among all stakeholders.

“People expect us to not shy away from difficult conversations. Therefore, I call on the Mayor and my fellow council members to accept the business community’s invitation to talk through their concerns,” he stated.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg could not be reached for comment.

Last October, the City’s Aviation Department Director Russ Handy presented the RFP to the City Council’s Audit and Accountability Committee, chaired by Councilman John Courage (D9). According to the meeting minutes, council members asked about various goals and terms of the contract, but the labor peace agreement requirement was not discussed.

During the Oct. 3 meeting, Courage asked if Handy anticipated national response to the RFP. Handy informed the committee that they did, and that many of the companies already identified as fitting the requirements operated as large, national companies that partnered with smaller, local firms.

The airport RFP calls for the selected bidder to have at least a 75 percent local/regional component to their services.

Courage did not respond to requests for comment, but a spokesperson in his office said the main goal of the labor peace agreement clause is to ensure no disruption of operations at the airport if employees unionize.

In Texas, union members account for 4.7 percent of wage and salary workers, up from 4.0 percent in 2016, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationwide, union members accounted for 10.7 percent of employed wage and salary workers in 2017.

Over half of the 14.8 million union members in the U.S. live in just seven states, California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Ohio.

“In my mind, when unions were important, [it was a time when] people were getting arms cut off, it was serious, and we needed protections for employees,” Perez said.

“That’s not how it is today. The market is so competitive right now, we have the lowest unemployment rates in history. It is an employee market, they can go wherever they want … vote with their feet. San Antonio has a tight job market. Why would we want to impose this on a small business, or any business for that matter, when it’s already so hard to compete?”

For those interested in submitting a proposal, a conference will be offered Thursday, Feb. 22, at the airport, with respondents asked to submit questions in writing two days before the conference. Proposals are due April 18.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.