In calling for a boycott of nine Los Angeles hotels last week, the union representing 2,800 housekeepers, bellmen, cooks, banquet staff and other workers pushed harder than it had since its contract ran out April 15.

It is unlikely to push any further.

Maria Elena Durazo, president of Local 11 of Unite HERE, conceded last week that the organization lacked the financial muscle to back a strike in support of its call for a new contract with improved wages, staffing and health benefits.

"Why are we going to do something that's suicidal?" Durazo said in an interview with Business Journal reporters and editors. "The employers know that they have this extraordinary wealth to wait it out. We saw it with the grocery store workers. (Hotel workers) live from paycheck to paycheck. They are really scared about leaving their jobs."

Durazo also hinted the union might drop its demand for a two-year agreement that would line up the contract's expiration date with pacts in as many as nine other cities, in exchange for gains in other areas.

"Whether or not Los Angeles sticks to the '06 or doesn't stick to the '06, one thing that is absolutely sure is that we have got to be structured differently (nationally) in order to get the attention on the issues that are important to workers."

She would not say what the hotels would have to offer to get Local 11 to drop the two-year contract demand, although she said health insurance coverage and reducing housekeepers' workloads remain priorities. Workers have been charged $10 per week in health coverage since this summer.

Unite HERE locals in L.A., San Francisco and Washington, D.C., want contracts that expire in 2006 so they would be in line with the expiration dates of agreements in Boston, Chicago, New York, Toronto and other cities. That would essentially create a national bargaining unit.

Synching the contracts has been the most contentious issue with the hotels, which are looking for a five-year agreement. But Durazo pointed out that six to 10 cities in the U.S. and Canada already have master agreements that expire in 2006, or agreements with individual hotels enough to put a squeeze on the national operators and lessening the sense of urgency for L.A. to get a two-year agreement.

Few options

The union's Nov. 10 call for a boycott was designed to put a financial squeeze on the hotels without costing union members the lost wages that would come with a walkout.

It also served to harden the position of hotel operators, who said that if a regional bargaining unit could affect business with a boycott in one city, the damage of a national effort would be far greater.

"I don't think they realized how committed the hotels were to not aligning their contract expiration with those of other cities," said Colleen Kareti, president of the Los Angeles Hotel Employers Council, the hotels' bargaining unit, and general manager of the Hyatt Regency Los Angeles. "The hotels will not accept a two-year deal."

The impact of a boycott on the hotels remains to be seen. Union leaders claim they had already persuaded as many as 30 businesses and groups not to hold meetings and banquets at the hotels before the Nov. 10 boycott announcement. But some hotels have contracts with the clients prohibiting cancellation of any events unless there is a strike or lockout.

Any business lost, Kareti added, means fewer shifts for the housekeepers, bellhops, cooks, severs and other workers.

Durazo countered that employers underestimate the effectiveness of the boycott, which will be sanctioned by the AFL-CIO.

She said the action would be honored nationwide by pro-union organizations and other clients who want to avoid the hassle of facing demonstrations outside the hotels.

Putting the fiscal hurt on the hotels is a strategy that emerged in part from years of frustration, Durazo said. The union has been trying to work with the hotels in partnerships, under which workers would accept reduced health insurance coverage at new hotel restaurants in exchange for hotel-paid job training. Durazo said the hotels wouldn't seal a deal.

The plan would have given the restaurants a chance to establish themselves while increasing the odds that workers will have permanent jobs, said Durazo.

Kareti said the boycott would only hurt the union because local business will simply be diverted to non-union hotels throughout the county.

"Instead of imposing financial hardship on them by going on strike, (Durazo) is taking money out of their pockets during the holidays by asking businesses not to come," said Kareti. "They are sending the business to non-union hotels. What sense does that make?"

The two sides have not met at the bargaining table since talks broke off Sept. 2. The union's rank-and-file authorized its leadership to call a strike in a vote less than two weeks later. Kareti said the council notified the union last week it is ready to return to the bargaining table. Union officials acknowledged receiving the offer but said they had not yet responded.

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