by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | May 01, 2006

Laura Jelinek

“The union will definitely be an issue this year, and there’s no point thinking you can just move to another city.”
Laura Jelinek of the AAOMS

This year will be a watershed one for hotel union activity, and any meeting planner who isn’t paying attention is asleep at the wheel, say experts. In the coming months, hotel employee contracts are set to expire in 14 cities, including six major convention destinations. In all, close to 300 hotels and 60,000 hotel workers will be affected. Should negotiations sour -- as they did in San Francisco in 2004, when 4,300 hotel employees at 14 hotels walked off their jobs -- the effect on the meeting and convention industry could be crippling. In that one instance, San Francisco lost $46 million in convention business because of the retaliatory lockout by the hotels and the volley of negative publicity that followed.
    In past years, labor contracts were negotiated at the local level, hotel by hotel, quietly and under the radar. Not any more. In the past two years, UNITE HERE, one of four unions that last year split from the AFL-CIO to form a new labor federation, has employed an aggressive negotiation strategy to enhance its collective bargaining power. And it has been hugely successful, aligning worker contract expiration dates across the continent and swelling its membership ranks.
    In February, the union stepped up activities when it kicked off a four-city “Hotel Workers Rising” campaign of well-publicized rallies in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. And in New York City, where contracts for 25,000 workers are set to expire July 1, the situation has the potential to become particularly ugly. In 2004, Peter Ward, president of the New York Hotel Trades Council, a member of UNITE HERE, instituted $10 per week member dues to seed a strike fund. That fund is expected to reach $25 million by the contract’s expiration date.
    For their part, hoteliers say they are intent on running on a business-as-usual model and have spent months crafting contingency plans to ensure service standards in every department, from elevator maintenance to housekeeping, are in no way compromised. Meeting planners, say industry insiders, should be doing the same.
    “The union will definitely be an issue this year, and there’s no point thinking you can just move to another city,” says Laura Jelinek, associate executive director at the Rosemont, Ill.-based American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons. “Planners need to pick up the phone and communicate with hotels about what resources they have in place.”
    Jelinek should know. In September 2004, employees at the Hilton San Francisco, the AAOMS’ headquarters hotel and temporary home to 2,500 attendees, walked off their jobs at 5 a.m. on the first day of the group’s annual convention. Jelinek, however, was not blindsided.
    “We had hoped for the best but prepared for the worst,” she says. “What made our meeting a success was the daily communication we had with the hotel and the months of preparations we made together.”