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Strike Threatens Rebound in San Francisco Tourism

Hotel occupancy and rates have risen, but labor negotiators have yet to reach a new deal.

September 08, 2006|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Tourists have been flocking here all summer, plunking down credit cards to cover rising room prices and filling hotels at the highest rate since 9/11 and the dot-com bust.

But for the second time in two years, the city is bracing for a potential strike at 13 of its largest hotels that could cost millions in tourism dollars.

Two weeks after union members authorized a strike, the increasing tensions were apparent Thursday as hundreds of the more than 4,200 hotel workers took turns picketing in front of the historic St. Francis Hotel on Union Square. Members of Unite Here Local 2 have been working without a contract since 2004, despite a two-week strike and seven-week lockout that fall.

"Very soon, we're going to have a contract or we're going to have a strike," said Unite Here Local 2 spokeswoman Valerie Lapin. "Two years is too long to wait."

Key sticking points remain affordable health insurance, wage increases and workload protections. Negotiators have been meeting morning through night for 11 days to hammer out a deal.

The union's dispute is with some of the city's best-known hotels, which are negotiating as a group. The hotels are Crowne Plaza San Francisco Union Square, Fairmont, Four Seasons, Grand Hyatt, Hilton San Francisco, Holiday Inn Civic Center, Holiday Inn Fisherman's Wharf, Holiday Inn Express & Suites at Fisherman's Wharf, Hyatt Regency, Mark Hopkins, Omni San Francisco, Sheraton Palace and Westin St. Francis.

Noah Griffin, spokesman for the hotels, said the group was committed to a contract that was fair and equitable.

"Nobody benefits from a work stoppage," Griffin said. "It's going to be settled in the suites and not on the streets."

But union officials said the hotels had responded only to direct pressure.

"We are cautiously optimistic that we can get a settlement," said Lamoin Werlein-Jaen, the union's secretary-treasurer. "But we want to send a message that we are willing to do whatever it takes to get a good contract."

On Thursday, boisterous workers -- some in housekeeping uniforms -- carried picket signs and bullhorns, chanting "Contract now."

Leslie Salmeron, 31, cleans rooms at the Hilton San Francisco for $15.08 an hour. He said he hadn't received a raise in three years and couldn't afford the nearly $270 monthly increase in health insurance costs, from $10 a month now, that the hotels had sought. That offer was pulled, as well as one that would have left health benefits unchanged for current workers but increased the cost for new workers.

In addition, the workload has gotten worse, Salmeron said.

Griffin said the hotels were doing their best to negotiate higher wages, retirement benefits and affordable healthcare.

Unite Here orchestrated many of its contracts in tourism-heavy cities to expire this year, giving the union a powerful strike threat. In recent weeks, workers in Honolulu, Chicago, Toronto and Monterey, Calif., also have voted to support a strike. In Los Angeles, the hotel workers' contract expires in November.

If the San Francisco workers decide to strike, it could tarnish the city's tourism reputation. Tourism is San Francisco's top industry, generating an estimated $7.3 billion annually and employing 66,000 people.

A boycott of the hotels has continued since the 2004 strike, which cost the city more than $51 million in 11 labor-related cancellations, according to the convention and visitors bureau. Union officials estimate the loss at more than $100 million.

During the 2004 strike and lockout, Mayor Gavin Newsom joined the picket line in support of workers, then helped broker a cooling-off period that got the union members back to work.

"Since then, we have done what we can to try and get the two sides closer towards each other, and that's the place where we stand right now," said Peter Ragone, a spokesman for the mayor.

Tourism has been robust in the city, with hotels posting rate increases that are stronger than before 9/11, according to PKF Consulting. Although room rates have been increasing steadily, as has occupancy, they haven't caught up with the boom years of the late 1990s.

In San Francisco, a strike now would have a greater effect than the one in 2004, said Alvin Chan, a PKF vice president. "Our occupancy is higher now and the available rooms -- the open rooms that demand could be displaced to -- aren't as readily available," Chan said.

In addition, September and October are the city's busiest months for conventions.

"We're doing everything we can to avert a strike," Lapin said. "But the workers know that if they don't take a stand now, they'll just lose in the end."

Times staff writer Alana Semuels contributed to this report.

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