Extended Stay Expected in Hotel Dispute

Staff Reporter

With neither side willing to budge on the length of a new contract, Los Angeles-area hotels and their unionized workers are bracing for a stalemate that could drag on for months.

Preparations for a strike or a lockout are in place, but each side characterized them as defensive, in case the other side initiated an action. With the post-Sept. 11 tourism industry finally on the rebound and hotel employees making lower wages than their counterparts in other major cities, neither side can afford to make the first move.

Nevertheless, each of the hotels has fielded dozens of applications from would-be replacement workers. Under a mutual aid pact, participating hotels have agreed to lock out all their unionized employees if the union struck any of the participating hotels.

Hotels would also lock out workers in the case of a work slowdown, hotel executives said. Union leaders, in turn, have been contacting banquet customers to keep them abreast of the dispute. Hotel officials claim this tactic has resulted in a handful of cancellations.

"We are informing them that the employers keep threatening us with a lockout," said Karine Mansoorian, chief negotiator for Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 11. "We're not asking for a boycott. We have not said word one about a strike ever. It's designed to scare the workers and its not working."

The Los Angeles Hotel Employers' Council, which represents the nine properties leading the bargaining effort, claims that as a result of the letters, several clients have canceled banquets at hotels, including the Hyatt Regency Los Angeles, St. Regis and the Westin Century Plaza.

"I don't think it's a very good tactic because at the end of the day it hurts our workers from lost hours, wages and tips," said Tim Loughman, general manager of the Westin Century Plaza and the St. Regis Los Angeles.

Escalating tensions

As of late last week, the 4,000-member Local 11 was expected to soundly reject the council's best-and-final offer, paving the way for the hotels to begin imposing a series of health co-payments and other measures union negotiators had turned down.

Union officials acknowledged they have few contingency plans for a lockout, other than to picket the hotels, conduct community outreach and negotiate with the health care provider for an extension of benefits.

"If they lock us out, we'll figure out what to do," said Mansoorian.

Last week, HERE charged in a filing with the National Labor Relations Board that the hotels declared an illegal impasse in negotiations while the union wanted to continue bargaining. Yet, it is unlikely any real progress will be made until both sides agree on the length of the contract.

Hotel executives want a five-year agreement, while the international office of HERE is spearheading a drive to line up many locals' contracts with a 2006 expiration date that could position them for a national strike.

A two-year pact would align local hotel workers with Boston, Chicago and New York, and give the unions more bargaining power to coordinate contract dates in San Francisco and Washington D.C. when agreements there expire later this summer.

While there is room for negotiation on pay and benefits, the union is determined to sign a two-year agreement.

"What we learned from the supermarket strike is that no longer can workers fight local by local, city by city," said Hilda Delgado, spokeswoman for the L.A. County Federal of Labor, which is assisting Local 11. "They have to act as an international union or otherwise they will get killed at the negotiating table."

The council's nine hotels, including the Century Plaza, Hyatt Regency, Millennium Biltmore, Regent Beverly Wilshire, St. Regis, Westin Bonaventure and Wilshire Grand, are also adamantly opposed to a two-year deal. Eight other hotels are bargaining separately but will be expected to model their agreements after this one.

"We've been in negotiations for 3 & #733; months now," said Lisa Van Krieken, a partner in San Francisco-based Folger Levin & Kahn, which is lead negotiator for the hotels. "That is certainly time consuming and disruptive. The hotels are certainly not interested in coming back and doing it again in 20 months."

HERE wage proposal

HERE, whose six-year contract expired April 15, has asked for hourly wage increases of $1.25 to $1.50 for non-tipped employees and 70 cents and 80 cents for tipped workers.

Most non-tipped employees are housekeepers who currently make $11.02 per hour while tipped employees, such as waiters, bellhops and some bartenders, make $6.75 per hour, the minimum wage.

The hotels want to give non-tipped employees a 45-cent raise the first year, 40 cents per year for the next three years and 50 cents in the final year. Tipped employees would get 10 cents more per year during the final four years of the contract.

Beginning July 2, the hotels planned to:

>Implement a $10 health care premium per week.

>Strengthen regulations for on-site visits by union leaders, who will have to bring identification, check in with security, wear a visitors' badge and stay out of work areas unless investigating a grievance.

>Revise the grievance procedure to set deadlines when hotels and unions must respond to complaints.

On Oct. 1, the hotels will begin a new sick-leave program that entitles workers to three paid days per year the first time workers have ever received this benefit. "They didn't even ask for this," said Stoddard. "We volunteered to give it to them."

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