Union bigwigs representing some of the nation’s lowest paid workers are holding their annual board meeting at one of Florida’s ritziest resorts just months after increasing membership dues.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents 1.4 million workers, is holding its annual board meeting at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort, where "Victorian elegance meets modern sophistication."
Two-hundred-fifty union officials are attending the 11-day conference ending Jan. 25, although not all are staying at the Grand Floridian. Resort rooms start at $488 per night before taxes and can exceed $2,000 if officials opt for a two Bedroom Club Level suite.
When UFCW officials are not meeting to discuss the union’s progress in its battle against Walmart, they can "relax in the sumptuous lobby as the live orchestra plays ragtime, jazz and popular Disney tunes. Bask on the white-sand beach, indulge in a luxurious massage and watch the fireworks light up the sky over Cinderella Castle."
A union spokeswoman confirmed that union leadership had been in Florida "all this week" for the meeting, but declined to elaborate how many people are attending the retreat, nor would she confirm that they were staying at the Grand Floridian.
A receptionist at the hotel confirmed that union President Joseph T. Hansen was staying at the resort. Washington Free Beacon phone calls to Hansen’s hotel room went unanswered.
The meeting comes just months after UFCW leadership decided to raise dues payments at its 2013 convention.
"Delegates did not make this decision lightly … we fully understand the challenges that our members face as a result of the impact of the recession," UFCW Local 5 president Ron Lind said in a letter addressed to his California members. "The majority of the revenue from this increase will be sent directly to the International union."
The international union has run up a number of lavish tabs on luxury accommodations in recent years.
The union spent more than $500,000 to host its 2011 board meeting at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa in Bonita Springs, FL—home to a "championship golf course and world-class spa"—according to UFCW’s 2012 Department of Labor filings. The union also spent more $155,000 for a conference at Asheville’s Omni Grove Park Inn, a Four Diamond resort that has earned praise from Conde Nast Traveler, Golf Magazine, and Wine Spectator in recent years.
The UFCW also spent more than $24,000 at the Hammock Beach Resort in Palm Coast, a Forbes Travel Guide Editor’s Pick. The UFCW National Headquarters spent nearly $9,000 at The Palm Restaurant, a world-class steakhouse in Charlotte.
UFCW does not just shell out big bucks for hotel accommodations. International President Hansen received more than $350,000 in salary and other disbursements in 2011, while nine other union honchos pulled down more than $220,000 on the year.
Union leaders weren’t the only ones to receive generous paydays compliments of UFCW members. MSNBC host Ed Schultz received $20,000 for appearing at a 2011 conference. He pulled in more than $200,000 for such appearances that year.
UFCW has been a staunch critic of lavish living through OUR Walmart, a worker center subsidiary of the union that has campaigned for higher wages and benefits at the nation’s largest employer. The union and OUR Walmart sponsor Walmart1Percent.org to highlight the Walton family’s wealth.
"The Waltons have these riches thanks to the hard work of their own employees and all of us taxpayers," the website says.
Labor watchdogs criticized the UFCW’s gilded spending habits, pointing out that the union is only able to spend $61 million on "representational activities," $13.2 million on "political activities and lobbying" and $1.9 million on air travel because of the dues workers pay.
"At a time when labor bosses are hiking union dues on working men and women, it is telling that they have decided to splurge on a luxurious retreat at a swanky, high-end Florida resort," said Ryan Williams of Worker Center Watch. "The decision to hold this event at such an extravagant location highlights the true priorities of the people who are in charge of the UFCW."
Union leadership was careful to avoid mentioning some of its more lavish spending when it informed members of the $36 dues hike in October, focusing its appeal on the union’s political goals.
"Our battles against the spread of Walmart and other low-wage, non-union retailers as well as the defense against anti-worker political forces continue to drain our resources. We must continue to fund these and other efforts," California union executive Ronald Lind said in his letter.
One source familiar with the retreat said that kind of appeal was easier for a worker to swallow than telling them that their dues were going to pay for a swanky resort.
"The board members are hitting up their members for higher dues while they’re living high on the hog," the source said.