|By Eric Eyre, The Charleston Gazette,
W.Va.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 18, 2009 --CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Union workers at The Greenbrier resort have ratified an amended contract with the hotel's new owner.
Also, Marriott International has agreed to market the resort and withdraw its opposition to the sale.
Greenbrier employees voted 325-3 for the new collective bargaining agreement. The contract has more favorable terms for employees than a previous agreement reached last month, Greenbrier owner Jim Justice and the union said Monday.
Justice hired back furloughed employees and reopened contract negotiations after purchasing the historic resort in White Sulphur Springs on May 7 for $20 million. The contract provides significant improvements in health benefits, Justice said.
"I wasn't able to give them the world, but I was able to give back significant things," said Justice. "There were several positive givebacks, including health care."
Justice worked on the amendments with union leaders late last week.
"Jim expressed to the employees that he wanted an agreement that was more beneficial to them than the one previously ratified, and our membership strongly agreed," said Peter Bostic, business manager and secretary-treasurer of Workers United Local 863, which represents about 1,000 employees at the resort.
The union negotiated its previous contract with The Greenbrier's former owner, Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX Corp., and Marriott International, which had planned to buy the resort until Justice came along.
On Friday, Justice and Marriott reached a tentative agreement that allows the hotel chain to market the historic resort. In exchange, Marriott won't challenge the resort's sale.
Justice and Marriott executives worked out the deal last Friday night at Greenbrier Valley Airport.
"It can be a wonderful marriage," Justice said. "Marriott will be an integral player in sending us guests. There are so many advantages that can come from this."
Two weeks ago, Marriott questioned The Greenbrier's sale, saying it had a contract to purchase the resort from CSX.
Under the tentative deal struck last week, Marriott will receive a commission for Greenbrier guests booked through the hotel chain's marketing network.
Justice said no written agreement has been signed, and many details must be worked out.
Justice would have to pay Marriott a $7.5 million "break-up fee," if the proposed deal falls through, or if Justice later cancels Marriott's marketing partnership.
Marriott executives said Monday that they never intended to own The Greenbrier over the long-term, and were pleased to avoid a legal dispute with Justice.
"Our goal is to make The Greenbrier available to our customers as part of our family of hotels, and we hope to accomplish that objective in the next 30 days," said Richard Hoffman, Marriott's executive vice president for business development. "The Justice family will be great owners for The Greenbrier."
On Tuesday, a U.S. Bankruptcy judge in Richmond, Va., is expected to consider whether to dismiss The Greenbrier's Chapter 11 bankruptcy case.
The Greenbrier has lost $90 million during the past five years, including $35 million last year.
"I'm cautiously optimistic that the dismissal of the bankruptcy is imminent," said Justice, who planned to be in court Tuesday morning.
Marriott's marketing deal won't stop Justice and his company, Justice Family Group, from also marketing the resort, Justice said.
"We're looking forward to working together in a prosperous manner," Justice said. "They are really first-class people. They're a really good company. There will be constant communication between their people and our people."
Justice said he will manage the resort and oversee all employees.
"I own it, and I'll run it as I see fit," he said.
After the bankruptcy case gets dismissed, Justice intends to start planning a $20 million stand-alone casino at the resort.
In November, Greenbrier County voters approved a measure that would allow casino-style gambling at the resort.
"This is going to be a state-of-the-art, one-of-a-kind, Monte Carlo-style casino," Justice said.
Reach Eric Eyre at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4869.
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