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19/04/03 . PAUL MARKS . The Hartford Courant . USA
McDonald's Simmers Over Bill
Proposed Law Makes Airport Concessions Deal Hard To Stomach
April 19, 2003 By PAUL MARKS, Courant Staff Writer
WINDSOR LOCKS -- For years, the biggest gripe about Bradley International Airport has been the quality of its food and beverage concessions. State officials still cringe at public complaints about mediocre food, surly service and a general lack of pizzazz.
Now, with a $200 million renovation project nearing completion, airport officials say they are bent on changing all that. They have contracted with a new master concessionaire, hamburger giant McDonald's Corp., to dress things up. A new terminal, complete with food court and upscale coffee bar, will open Thursday.
But officials worry that progress may be derailed by tensions between the union representing Bradley's food-service workers and McDonald's, which is bound by a 2002 state law to offer jobs first to the existing workforce.
The latest flash point is a bill approved this month by a General Assembly committee and awaiting a vote in the Senate. If passed, it would step up the timeline by which McDonald's must offer jobs to about 100 members of Local 217 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees International Union.
That prospect has McDonald's crying foul, and hinting it might back out of the contract.
"Changing the rules in midstream goes against all notions of fair play," the corporation's development director, Michael Kuronen, testified before the legislature's labor committee last month. "If the amendment seeks to legislate that we have absolutely no say in who we can employ, our contract has been substantially altered without our consent."
The concessions plan for Bradley's new terminal goes well beyond the familiar "golden arches." It includes a pizza shop, deli and a yet-to-be-chosen, sit-down restaurant. McDonald's shares a contract for concessions at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, and has restaurants in 59 airports.
Contacted Friday, Kuronen would not say McDonald's might drop the Bradley contract - but would not rule it out either.
"I don't think it's appropriate for us to list our possible options," he said, but added, "The proposed new law would give us no say in who we would employ. What company would agree to that requirement?"
Nonetheless, on April 3, the General Assembly's labor committee approved the measure by an 8-4 vote.
Senate Co-chairwoman Edith Prague, D-Columbia, said forcing McDonald's to give existing workers a first crack at jobs is not unreasonable. "McDonald's doesn't have to keep employees who are not good employees," she said.
House Co-chairman Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, said McDonald's has nothing to lose by hiring experienced workers. "What kind of guarantee do they have with new employees, that they're going to be any better than the present ones?" he said. "These are working people who just want to keep their jobs."
Such thinking has frustrated state Transportation Commissioner James Byrnes and Bradley Board of Directors Chairman L. Scott Frantz.
"From the board's point of view, what we care passionately about is better customer service," Frantz said. He said the McDonald's proposal, chosen from among several competing plans, represents "the best in creativity and uniqueness, but more importantly ... the best in quality, service and experience."
The worker-retention law, passed last July, complicated negotiations with McDonald's last fall, delaying the contract signing by months. It requires McDonald's to give employees of HMS Host Corp., the present concessionaire, jobs for at least 90 days after HMS Host leaves. During that period, they may be fired "for cause" - that is, if they prove incompetent, insubordinate or dishonest. After the 90 days, they may be dismissed without cause.
When the bill was drafted, however, no one noticed - and the union says state officials didn't bother to point out - that HMS Host will continue managing part of the airport's concessions through March 2004.
That means the transition will occur gradually, as renovations in Bradley's main terminal conclude and airlines move operations out of the old Terminal B, where snack counters and bars will close. Current law requires McDonald's to offer displaced workers jobs only at the time the HMS Host contract expires.
Most new jobs, union organizer Debra Jordan said, will be filled by the time union workers see their jobs disappear.
Without protection, she argues, many will be thrust out of work. "The  legislation was pegged to the date that the Host contract expires, and our people are going to be impacted by layoffs well before that," Jordan said.
On a national scale, the leadership of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union sees McDonald's as a threat.
Its website claims that "anti-union tactics" by McDonald's squelched a union local at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington when the fast-food giant took over the food-service concession there.
Despite a local worker-retention law, the union says, the company closed for months of renovations, then offered union workers their jobs back at lower pay, "with McDonald's-style benefits." By then, many had moved on.
The website quotes union organizer Billy Easton as saying one goal at Bradley is to ensure "that the union continues to represent a majority of all the workers" - so Local 217 retains its bargaining power. Easton could not be reached for comment.
Byrnes, the transportation commissioner, said HMS Host workers are free to apply for jobs with McDonald's any time, but that could disrupt concessions that require staffing for another 11 months. Byrnes added that he thinks Bradley's food-service problems stem not only from poor management and training, but also from some lackluster employees.
The bottom line is that, to do the job better, McDonald's wants to pick its own workforce.
Imposing further legal obligations on the new concessionaire, Byrnes told lawmakers last month, "may cause significant detriment to the ability of McDonald's to operate its Bradley facilities in the manner that we expect."
A big liability, he added, is that the 2002 law already allows a fired food-service employee to sue the DOT. For the state, that injects a new layer of liability into forcing the new concessionaire to hire workers it may not want.