Hospitality industry could be headed for a summer showdown


Hotel groups and union offer Meeting planners advice

Meeting planners worried about a summer of labor unrest may take some comfort in the fact that hotel organizations are trying to help them -- as is the very union that they fear will escalate wage and benefits demands into job actions.

Unite Heres Amanda Cooper said the union has posted information on a Web site maintained by the union to offer advice in the event a labor action is taken at a hotel where a conference is planned.

We want to make sure they [meeting planners] understand what their options are, Cooper said. The hotels are not necessarily the most forthcoming with these folks on what might occur at their event. We dont want anyone to be caught unaware, and we will work with whoever will work with us.

The Web site,, offers tips on what to do if a job action is called at a hotel where a conference or convention is planned.

It also offers a meeting planners resource manual, a 17-page document with information from lawyers that the union says are familiar with legal issues pertaining to hotel reservation agreements, and sample reservation contract language.

Multi-employer groups, including the Chicago Area Hotel Group, are also offering advice and assurances on Web sites to those who schedule conventions and business conferences meetings.

Bill Keegan of the Chicago Area Hotel Group, which last month launched an information Web site for hotel employees in Chicago,, said the group has already heard from meeting planners trying to keep up with possible consequences of labor negotiations this summer.

There have been some concerns expressed, and we have had calls asking what all this means to meeting planners, he said.

We have a site for meeting planners, and we are developing a guide that will be a useful resource.

We want them to feel they can book with confidence, Keegan said. That is a key goal, so they will have contingency plans in place based on developments that may occur.

As of last week, the meeting planner information on the Web site was still under construction.-- D.L.

Across the street from Californias Monterey County Fairgrounds, not far from Cannery Row, Deborah Stewart looks out on a scene that matters far more to the fortunes of the small hotel she manages than the beauty of Monterey Bay or the dozens of fairground events that draw thousands of visitors each year.

What has unfolded outside her Monterey Bay Travelodge, day in and day out for almost two years, is a job action that hotels, convention and visitors bureaus and other players in the U.S. tourism industry fear could blemish their own economic landscapes in the months ahead.

Stewart has watched her 13 unionized hotel employees -- at times accompanied by high-profile, national labor leaders -- form picket lines, carry signs and stage more than 80 rallies to protest low wages and vanishing healthcare benefits.

The workers have periodically been joined by local political figures and hundreds of citizen supporters. More than once, Stewart has called the Monterey Police Department, threatening employees with arrest on trespassing charges.

They called police as recently as two weeks ago, said Mark Weller, projects coordinator for Unite Here Local 483, which represents the workers. The union launched a boycott of the hotel in mid-2004 and, according to Weller, these have been peaceful protests, with children and families there, talking about healthcare and living wages. The reaction has been ridiculous.

The protests and the hotels response have been more than a highly contentious local issue. They have grown into something of a cause celebre for Unite Here, a national union that represents about 90,000 hotel and restaurant workers. The union is expected to launch a full-frontal attack on wage and benefit issues this summer in major cities across the country.

Unite Heres two top executives, Bruce Raynor and John Wilhelm, joined protesters outside the Monterey Bay Travelodge last year. As many as 2,400 citizen supporters have walked the picket lines over the past 17 months, helping to keep the protests and boycott alive.

Even though the Travelodge is a small hotel with only a handful of workers, the unions fight has been relentless.

Unite Here filed protests with the National Labor Relations Board after the hotels absentee owner, Kilsoo Seo, threatened to fire workers and close the hotel. He subsequently froze wages and canceled employees longtime health benefits in what the union has characterized as retaliation for legitimate protests.

Seo later settled the charges with the NLRB, records show, agreeing to stop threats against the workers. But the workers still have no contract and no health benefits. And neither side is blinking.

Seo, who lives in Alaska, could not be reached for comment. What Stewart may think or feel as she watches her workers handing leaflets to guests during lunch and work breaks is a matter of speculation. I cant comment, she said after repeated calls. I cant talk about it.

Operators of other local hotels on the popular Monterey Peninsula are also reluctant to talk. Ten of those hotels -- all of which provide health benefits and wages higher than the $8.84 an hour that housekeepers make at the Travelodge -- will renegotiate their contracts with Unite Here 483 this summer.

And while it may be unclear how serious the economic damage has been to the local Travelodge -- where lunch-time protests include chants, drums, shakers and lots of signs -- the situation has clearly got the attention of other hoteliers.

Seo and Stewart have acknowledged on a couple of occasions that the hotel is losing money, Weller said. So I think the action there will have an impact on the upcoming negotiations. Such protests are something that the other hotels want to avoid. Im sure they will all have that in mind when negotiations start.

The tension isnt limited to California. With Unite Here poised to go to the mat with hotel companies from Los Angeles to New York this summer over wages, benefits and union-organizing issues, the microdrama on Monterey Bay increasingly seems to foreshadow things to come. 

Digging in deep

The protests at the Monterey Bay Travelodge were among the first job actions by Unite Here following the merger in July 2004 of Unite, the national textile workers union, and Here, the union that had long represented hotel and restaurant employees.

The union has come a long way since then. Labor experts say its most significant accomplishment to date may have been carrying out a process that Here started before the merger: coordinating expiration dates of contracts in six major cities.

The gauntlet was thrown down with the official launch last month of its national campaign, Hotel Workers Rising, featuring appearances by former vice presidential candidate John Edwards and actor Danny Glover.

Contracts begin expiring in July and August in Los Angeles, New York, Toronto, Boston, Honolulu and San Francisco. Whether it will be a long, hot summer of labor disputes and difficult negotiations, with cities sweating out the result, remains to be seen. But the unions aggressive campaign, with rallies across the country and multiple unionization drives, spell showdown for many interested parties.

The fallout from widespread job actions in the hospitality industry could have serious consequences for business travelers, vacationers, conventioneers, travel agents and businesses that thrive on tourism.

Hotel chains are already mobilizing to prepare for worst-case scenarios, one in which hotel workers strike, boycott, demonstrate or otherwise seek to disrupt business in an effort to force employers to capitulate on wage and benefit demands. Lockouts are possible, as is the importation of workers from elsewhere to keep hotels operating.

It is difficult to predict what is going to happen, said David Sherwyn, an assistant professor of labor relations and hospitality at Cornell University. But it is fascinating. And many of us in the academic world are waiting also to see what the summer of 2006 is going to bring. People are already writing papers and planning conferences around this issue.

Unite Heres determination can best be seen in what has unfolded in California. As Local 483 began escalating its efforts in Monterey in 2004, contract expirations in San Francisco led to the first major battleground with even more intense labor confrontations.

Labor talks there deteriorated into a stalemate in the fall of 2004, resulting in hotel strikes, then lockouts and, finally, a series of boycotts.

A truce was negotiated by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, but since then, hotel workers in the city have worked without a contract. Negotiations are set to resume this summer.

While the labor unrest had an impact on the economic well-being of both workers and hotels, the collateral damage has also been significant for San Franciscos entire tourism industry.

In 2004-2005, when all this was coming down and it seemed like there was no light at end of the tunnel, we took some cancellations, said Mark Theis, vice president of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau. It equates to close to $50 million in economic impact for the city.

In all, the CVB estimates that eight or nine conventions were canceled during the strikes and lockouts, including a gathering of about 15,000 educators. And the pain will be long-lasting, since the numbers include groups that were scheduled in 2007-2008 who did not want to move forward because of the risk and ambiguity over labor issues, Theis said.

Theis said he believes the worst is over, especially now that concerns about labor unrest are shifting to other major cities as Unite Here broadens the scope of the Hotel Workers Rising campaign.

The pain is being spread around a little now, Theis said. The irony is that even though the union is trying to stand firm on its issues, when you lose seven or eight groups of this magnitude, it also translates to lost wages. When 15,000 or so educators, or whoever, dont come here, that means less bell captains, less banquet service, all of which directly impacts union wages.

Hotels consistently declined to comment directly on Unite Here, referring calls instead to what is known as Multi-Employer Groups, or MEGS, in various cities.

Hotel group: Campaign is a farce

The American Hotel and Lodging Association, on the other hand, has been forthcoming and aggressive in its characterization of Hotel Workers Rising.

Its a campaign that is full of hot air, said Joe McInerney, president of the AHLA.

But more to the point, he said, Unite Heres efforts have been more focused on building the unions membership than on securing better wages and benefits for workers. And hotel operators are concerned about the tactics the union is using.

We have provided employees with good wages and pensions and affordable healthcare, McInerney said. But the union needs to grow membership, and that is what this is really all about.

Our whole thing here is we want to make sure the employee has the right to choose. We are not against unions; we have unions throughout the country. In our industry, in surveys we do every two years, 68% of the employees at nonunion hotels have health and welfare benefits. And 72% of workers in the union hotels have health benefits. So it is not that nonunion hotels are not providing health benefits.

The fact is, it is hard to get hotel workers today, McInerney added. You have to provide benefits. We want to be sure we provide competitive wages and affordable healthcare and pensions. That is how we keep workers, and anyone will tell you it costs more to have employee turnover.

Amanda Cooper, a spokeswoman for Unite Here in New York, bristled at the suggestion that wages and benefits are not primary issues, although she acknowledges that building union membership to strengthen ranks is also necessary.

The goal of this campaign is to create a better life for hotel workers, she said. It is our feeling, and it is reality, that hotel workers work hard and they contribute greatly to the success of the properties where they work. All that is not arguable.

All we are hoping is that we can partner with the hotel industry and create middle-class jobs for our workers. As far as hotel companies go, it is entirely up to them. It is not in anyones interest to have a summer of strikes. Strikes are hard on everybody. That is not the goal of this campaign in any way.

Cooper acknowledged that convention and tourism business could suffer if workers and employers come to an impasse. But she said that political support for unions often seen in such areas tells a different tale.

There is definitely a short-term risk for these communities if there is a job action and they lose business, Cooper said. But mayors in these cities recognize that what is good for the city is for their residents to have good jobs. That is where the tax base comes from; it is where money for food stamps and community-support programs comes from. These consolidated hotel companies are not based in these cities. Their profits leave the city, but the workers stay. Good-paying jobs are the best anti-poverty program a city has.

She added: We hope sincerely there is no short-term cost for the cities. But we have to stand up for what we believe in and for what these communities need.

While employers and the union may disagree on whether wages and benefits are fair, both sides agree that the stage is now set for a drama that could affect the strengthening but still recovering U.S. tourism industry.

McInerney said that while hotels have begun posting record revenues over the past year, hospitality is a cyclical business that requires significant capital investment regularly, and profits could easily fall again.

Union wage gains from any nationally orchestrated effort that disrupts tourism are not so cyclical, he said.

You can be sure that they wont give it back when we have a downturn, he said of the wages and benefits the union is seeking.

Chicago hotels have PR strategy

In Chicago, where more than 7,000 union workers contracts expire in August, steps are already being taken to prepare hotels to cope with potential labor unrest.

Repeated calls to the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau, channeled first through a city spokesmen, then to the bureaus spokesman, were eventually referred to the private Chicago Area Hotels Group.

Bill Keegan, a spokesman for the group, said that hotels that are members of this new consortium launched a concerted information campaign late last month that is aimed directly at the citys hotel workers to counteract escalating union activities in preparation for contract negotiations.

What we have been trying to make clear, Keegan said, is that we understand and respect the right of the union to have a national agenda in these national markets. But the Chicago group is not concerned with a national agenda ... we are only concerned about what is best for Chicago employees.

To that end, the 20-member CAHG has launched a Web site offering information about the upcoming Unite Here campaign, to explain to hotel workers their rights and responsibilities and to conduct meet-and-greet events to pledge cooperation and to keep workers informed on contract issues.

They are also trying to communicate with meetings planners and related tourism interests to assure them of their plans to continue to provide hotel rooms, convention and banquet services and other needs in the event of labor trouble.

Weve distributed flyers, and we want employees to know that they can communicate with us directly and not just through union stewards, Keegan said. We want to provide them with that additional channel.

Labor experts say Chicago and other cities on the list for new negotiations want to avoid what happened in San Francisco, where a 14-member multi-employer group saw failed negotiations dissolve into strikes and lockouts.

We dont want to see any disruptions in the Chicago hospitality market, Keegan said. And that is why we have taken these steps to go directly to members.

But Keegan said the CAHG is also preparing to deal with contingencies and to take whatever steps might be necessary to cope with any labor actions by Unite Here -- although he declines to say what those steps might be.

We consider that proprietary, he said.

But labor watchers say it would come as no surprise to see hotels staffed by workers from other parts of the country.

Frankly, I think the union recognizes that it is not in the best interest of either side to see job actions, Keegan said, so they will come to the bargaining table in good faith.

To contact reporter Dan Luzadder, send e-mail to [email protected].


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