Hotel workers resoundingly back strike

San Francisco hotel workers voted Thursday to authorize their union leaders to call a strike if current negotiations do not result in a contract agreement.

Ninety-three percent, or 2,241, of The City’s hotel workers voted to strike, with only 158 voting against, according to Unite Here! Local 2 spokeswoman Valerie Lapin.

If the employees — including housekeepers, kitchen workers, food servers and bell staff — end up walking out on the job, it will be the second such strike in two years against a group of 13 hotels.

In September 2004, Local 2 set up a two-week strike. The hotels, bargaining together under the umbrella name of San Francisco Multi Employer Group, responded by locking out the 4,000-plus workers. The showdown lasted for more than six weeks, and ended only after Mayor Gavin Newsom intervened. The two sides never settled on a revised contract, which strategically may benefit Local 2.

According to Local 2 President Mike Casey, San Francisco’s local union has timed its new bargaining efforts alongside current contract negotiations for hotel workers in other cities, including Chicago, Toronto, Honolulu and Monterey.

“We think we have greater leverage at this point,” Casey said, adding that many of the hotels are part of national chains, giving them “a lot of power and a lot of clout.”

Ken Jacobs, the deputy chairman of UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, said that while the “hotels are leading the way” with the strategy of lining up contracts with other American unions, the expectation is that other unions will adopt similar tactics.

“National corporations have much deeper pockets and can withstand a regional strike,” Jacobs said. “In order to have a level playing field, unions are going to have to coordinate on a much broader level.”

The San Francisco hotels are not taking into consideration the negotiations in other cities, said Noah Griffin, a spokesman for the 13 hotels.

“We’re focused solely on the economic package andour workers in San Francisco,” he said. “We have enough on our hands negotiating a contract without paying attention to what’s going on in other cities.”

Although Griffin said he would not discuss the details of what’s being negotiated at the bargaining table, Local 2 representatives say the core issues that are being debated include wage increases, pension improvements, job security in the event a hotel is sold, workload reductions, union rights at other hotels and health benefits.

The hotel group has proposed a two-tiered health care package that would provide reduced benefits for newer employees, a proposal the union has rejected.

One of the union workers, Pedro Castillo, a part-time food server for the Hilton, said it wouldn’t be fair to new employers or in his best interest to approve the two-tiered system.

“I’m approaching retirement,” the 62-year-old worker said. “When I need them for my retirement benefits, they’ll say ‘wait a minute, you sold us out.’”

According to Casey, no timeline has been set for a strike, since the union’s goal is to hammer out an agreement this time.

The union and the hotel representatives have both agreed to meet every day until Labor Day.

San Francisco Chamber of Commerce President Steve Falk said that, after talking to both sides, he believes “a strong commitment” exists to avoid a strike.

With tourism being San Francisco’s No. 1 industry, a hotel strike would have a rippling negative impact throughout The City. According to San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates, $30 million in convention-related revenue has been lost since 2004 due to the ongoing hotel labor struggles.

Contract talks

Among core issues being negotiated at the bargaining table:

» Health care: Hotels have offered a two-tiered system with reduced benefits for new employees

» Wages: Union is asking for future increases as well as additional retroactive pay, dating back to 2004 contract expiration date

» Pension: Union wants improved retirement benefits

» Union has asked for job security in the event a hotel is sold

» Workload reductions for some hotel positions, including maids

» Organizing rights if hotel owners acquire new hotels in San Francisco

<p>Source: Unite Here! Local 2

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