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Major Hotel Strike Looms

April 22, 2006|James Gilden | Special to The Times

Business travelers could find themselves in quite a predicament when checking into hotels this summer. Hotel workers' labor contracts have lapsed or will lapse this year in seven major North American cities, and the threat of a major strike looms large.

The decision to cross a picket line can be troubling even for someone who does not support a union's position, and the possibility of hotel services being reduced can be especially problematic for business travelers.

San Francisco's unionized hotel workers have been working without a contract for two years, and Toronto's contract expired in January. By August, contracts will expire in New York, Boston, Chicago and Honolulu. Los Angeles' contract expires in November.

This alignment of the labor union's stars is no coincidence, according to the hotel industry. Since 2000 it has been a strategy of the hotel workers' union Unite Here to have contracts in major cities expire in the same year to increase its strength, said Joe McInerney, president of the American Hotel & Lodging Assn., an industry trade group.

Negotiations have begun in some cities; they usually begin about two months before the end of a contract, McInerney said. The hotels hope to avoid a strike and expect that the unions do too, he said.

"Nobody benefits in a strike," he said. "The workers don't benefit, the customers don't benefit, the industry doesn't benefit."

The union is taking a similar view -- but only to a point.

"We certainly aren't planning to strike," Unite Here spokeswoman Amanda Cooper said. "We're hoping the industry will negotiate in good faith.

"But if we're not successful, the strongest tool workers have in their tool kit is a strike, and that does become legal as contracts expire."

For a large number of business travelers and convention groups, crossing a picket line would be unthinkable. Many simply cancel or change their plans to avoid the situation.

Since the trouble began in San Francisco, close to a dozen large groups have canceled their conventions in that city, said Mark Theis, vice president of conventions for the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau. It has caused an estimated $50-million loss to the city's economy to date.

"We luckily were able to offset some of these labor cancellations with other business," he said. "But I'm not going to deny it's had a serious impact on the local economy."

Because these events are often scheduled years in advance, convention planners have few options. Most contracts carry substantial cancellation penalties, even if a hotel is having labor problems. If travelers cancel so as to avoid crossing a picket line, convention planners are left holding the bag for unused rooms.

Associations are concerned not just with being stuck with damages associated with canceling but also with lost revenue as many groups count on the fees earned at the annual meetings to generate a large portion of their operating budget, said David McCann, editor in chief of MeetingNews, a magazine for corporate meeting and convention planners.

For individuals who may be traveling to a strike-affected city, information is possibly the best defense.

"As with anything in travel, we watch it closely," said Sam Schisler, vice chairman of the National Business Travel Assn. hotel committee and head of global hotel procurement for Limited Brands Inc.

"The biggest thing is to know your hotels: How much is it going to affect the hotels you stay at?"

If strikes were to occur, many in the industry believe that New York would be the first city affected.

The unionized hotel workers there have been steeling themselves for a strike. In 2004, they assessed themselves an extra $10 per paycheck to be designated for a strike fund that now tops a little more than $20 million, said John Turchiano, a spokesman for the New York hotel workers' union.

In case of a strike, not all hotels in a given city will be struck. Schisler recommends reading the local newspaper's website before departure to learn more about what is happening in the city.

Unite Here's website also lists hotels that are being boycotted or struck (www.unitehere.org/hotelguide). Being armed with knowledge is always smart advice for travelers, regardless of the circumstances.

If you hold nonrefundable reservations at a hotel that ends up being struck, your options are slim. A labor strike is not grounds for cancellation. But might hotels be willing to make an exception to its cancellation policies?

"I would highly doubt it," said Marc Grossman, a spokesman for Hilton Hotels. "It's not like a 9/11 where we did waive cancellation fees for groups and individuals because they couldn't physically get to the hotels.

"But those decisions haven't been made."

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James Gilden can be reached via e-mail at james.gilden@latimes.com.

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