by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | October 01, 2004

On Sept. 14, after months of negotiations, hotel workers in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike.
    The action was called for by New York City-based Unite Here, formed by the June merger of UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Textiles and Industrial Employees, and HERE, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union.
    On Sept. 15, the union staged a press conference in Washington, D.C., that included fiery support from Kweisi Mfume, president and CEO of the Baltimore-based NAACP. “If we have to come out and walk the picket lines, week after week, we will. And we will win this battle,” Mfume said.
    With 880,000 members, Unite Here is taking its cause directly to where the threat of a hotel strike will resonate the loudest: the meeting planner.
    Last month, the union, which earlier this year purchased Dallas-based Meeting Professional International’s e-mail list, advised MPI’s planner members it was offering a new online resource, Hotel Labor Advisor, a twice-weekly newsletter designed to keep planners abreast of labor relations issues.
    Not only does the newsletter provide details on upcoming employee-contract expiration in various cities and the status of the union’s negotiations, it also offers advice and sample force majeure language to include in contracts with hotels.
    “What we heard from planners is that hotels aren’t giving them this hard information. So we decided to reach out to them,” said Jason Ortiz, a Miami-based research analyst for Unite Here. “At the end of the day, meetings are the bread-and-butter business for hotels, so it makes sense to tailor our outreach approach to planners.”
    In August and September, contracts for union members in hotel housekeeping and food service divisions expired in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. In San Francisco alone, where 4,000 of the affected workers are employed by 14 of the city’s major meeting properties, labor issues have become extremely contentious. On Labor Day, thousands of protesters marched through Union Square; several were arrested for blocking traffic and disturbing the peace.
    At the heart of the dispute, in which employees are seeking better hourly pay, pension benefits and work guidelines, is the length of the new con-
Hotel Labor Strife tract. Unite Here is demanding a two-year deal, rather than the five-year agreements offered by the hotels, which would give the union significantly more bargaining clout in 2006, when citywide contracts are set to expire in 28 cities, including Chicago, Hawaii and New York City.
    While Mark Huntley, president of the San Francisco Multi-Employer Group, the negotiating agency for that city’s hotels, refused to comment on the ongoing negotiations, he did dispute Unite Here’s claim that hotels fail to advise meeting planners of labor issues affecting them.
    “Meetings and conventions are an extremely important part of our business,” said Huntley. “It is standard practice among hotel members to reach out and communicate with anyone doing business with us and who would be affected by anything going on in our businesses.”
    The labor issue will continue to loom large for the hotel industry. Unite Here has picked up powerful allies such as the NAACP and the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino civil rights organization in the United States.
    Then there’s financial clout. “We are a union with its own $4 billion bank and the financial means to stand up to these hotel organizations,” said Unite Here president Bruce Raynor, speaking at the Sept. 15 press conference.