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Hotel hardball: Unions get tough

Although it is scheduled to end today, observes expect no quick resolution to the two-week old strike against a group of hotels in San Francisco. The labor strife reflects not only traditional issues such as wages and benefits, but a new strategy on the part of the hotel workers' union to stage job actions on a national rather than local basis.

Two weeks ago, union workers declared the strike against four hotels in the city; two days later, another 10 hotels locked out their union workers. Hotel workers in Los Angeles have demonstrated in support of the San Francisco local.

The event industry in San Francisco—a city known for sometimes-raucous labor battles—is finding moderate disruption of its scheduled events. Jennie Allen, event logistics manager of San Francisco-based Ideas, reported that the guest list for a recent event scheduled for the Four Seasons, one of the hotels honoring the lockout, included politicos who would not cross a picket line. Within hours, the event team moved the event to the Marriott, which is not involved in the dispute. “The magic of this event came from San Francisco businesses and individuals working together to throw a great event,” Allen said.

Heather Keenan, head of San Francisco’s Key Events, just had a corporate client elect to move its event from a lockout property to its corporate campus. The move will actually boost the size of the project for her company, but Keenan worries about the long-term impact of the strike for San Francisco. Although she supports fair wages for all workers and notes that service in affected hotels has been “seamless” thanks to careful contingency planning, “The union’s goals are to have all of the major convention cities contract negotiations on the same timetable,” she said. “In that case, if they choose to strike it will affect all major convention cities, and our planners will have no option but to cancel their meetings. With no meetings and events being planned, none of us, including the union, will have any work.” As noted in our last edition of Eventline, one of labor's goals is to align the expiration dates of pacts in dozens of North American cities. If the strategy works, scores of hotel contracts could expire at the same time in 2006, hitting major players including Starwood, Hilton and Marriott.

POSTCARD PUSH

In a traditional practice, union officials in San Francisco have been calling meeting planners bringing groups into the city and asking them to cancel the trips or face the disruptions of pickets and poor service. But in a new twist in labor strategy, Local 11 of UNITE H.E.R.E. in Los Angeles, a city where no strike is set, has kicked off a campaign to cut into bookings at Starwood's W hotel in west Los Angeles. According to Matt O’Malley, senior research analyst for the labor group, the local sent out some 2,000 postcards last month addressed to travel and tourism media and to major companies who book rooms at the property, advising them of purported guest complaints about poor service there. The postcard also directs recipients to a Web site reportedly listing more customer complaints that would-be guests can look at before they decide to check in.

O’Malley said the postcard campaign is “part and parcel of our campaign to line up contract expiration in three cities”—Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington

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