Yearlong standoff costing tourism industry

Ringo Mack has made a career out of being a waiter at the Hilton in downtown San Francisco — supporting his family for the past 30 years.

But as the 59-year-old Hong Kong immigrant nears retirement age, Mack says protecting his pension and keeping his health care costs low is critical.

That’s why Mack joined his members of Unite Here Local 2 on Thursday at the picket line — again.

“We need a fair contract,” Mack said from outside the hotel.

This month marks one year of a labor dispute that’s had a rippling effect across San Francisco, from employee morale to hotel occupancy and depressed tourism.

The issue: 61 hotels struggling in the worst economy since the Great Depression, 31 of which have been victims of employee work stoppages and boycotts reminiscent of the two-year-old labor dispute that started in 2004.

On the other side: 9,000 hotel workers, including waiters, bellmen and housekeepers. Their union wants changes in work loads, protected pension plans and limited health care costs.

Tourism is San Francisco’s No. 1 industry. It hosted 15.4 million visitors in 2009, including hotel guests, those staying with friends and relatives and those just visiting.

These visitors support the local economy and result in $426 million in tax and fee revenue to the city and county of San Francisco in 2009.

Part of that income comes from conventions and meetings. A total of 10 conventions and meetings have either canceled or opted not to come to San Francisco this year, citing labor issues as one of the reasons, according to the Convention & Visitors Bureau.

That lost business has cost San Francisco more than $8 million this year in hotel rooms, transportation, retail sales and visitor
attractions, the CVB says.

“That just scratches the surface,” said Leonard Hoops, executive vice president and chief customer officer for the CVB.

While the boycotts and strikes scare some business away from The City, they haven’t led to resolution of the labor issue.  
Riddhi Mehta, a representative with Local 2, said there has been little progress and as of now there are no dates set to continue negotiations.

“We certainly hope to move forward and that these actions and demonstrations will put pressure on these hotel corporations,” Mehta said.

Richard Curiale, chief negotiator for Starwood Hotels, which represents the St. Regis, Palace, Westin St. Francis and W hotels, did not return phone calls.

The union remains confident it will prevail, basing that in part on the 2004 labor dispute that lasted two years. During those boycotts, hotels locked out workers for 53 days. In the end, union members were able to secure many of their needs, including affordable health care, Mehta said.

The disruptions are bothering tourism now, but hotels are even more concerned about the long-term effect of these patterned disputes, said Patricia Breslin, executive director for the San Francisco Hotel Council.

“The question is, has the union established a precedent that will make meeting planners nervous?” Breslin said. “We want both sides back to the table — anything other than that sends a destructive message.”

SF tourism

2009
– 15.4 million visitors, came to The City, a 5.8 percent decrease from 2008.
– Visitors spent $7.8 billion, a decrease of 7.8 percent from 2008.

2010
– 10 conventions canceled plans or opted not to come to S.F.
– Equal to 5,700 hotel rooms not booked
– Lost revenue of $8.8 million

Source: Convention & Visitors Bureau

esherbert@sfexaminer.com

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