In the year-long game of poker between unionized hotel workers and owners of large hotels in Los Angeles, the owners appear to hold the weaker hand.


An aggressive boycott campaign has cost the hotels millions of dollars in lost business. Two of the nine hotels have dropped out of the Los Angeles Hotel Employer's Council (both were sold; the new owner of the Hyatt Regency Los Angeles cut its own deal with the union and the St. Regis hotel will be converted to condominiums). And a third hotel manager is urging accession to Unite HERE Local 11's demand for a contract that would expire in 2006, to line up with expiration dates in other large cities.


"Local 11 has outmaneuvered us," said John Stoddard, general manager of the Wilshire Grand hotel. "What I'm saying is stop fighting them and give them the '06 agreement."


When the previous contract expired more than a year ago, there appeared little hope that Unite HERE Local 11 could prevail. The larger and deeper-pocketed grocery workers' union had just lost a bruising battle with supermarket chains, and the contests had similar parallels.


Both unions represented lower-skill workers in industries where employers were aggressively seeking to cut costs. Both were at a disadvantage as a regional union fighting owners with nationwide, and in the case of the hotel owners, worldwide resources.


Knowing that it couldn't afford to strike, the union launched a boycott of the hotels, even though a successful boycott was sure to cost workers in the form of lost hours. And it pressed on with a tactic of delaying negotiations, showing a willingness to work without a contract until 2006 if need be.


No lockout
One fateful mistake, Stoddard now says, was the council's decision not to lock out workers in response to the boycott. Knowing that housekeepers, bellhops, food servers, bartenders and other employees lived mostly paycheck to paycheck, hotel managers were confident they could outlast workers in a work stoppage.


But when the picket lines began last July, the hotels' only response was to begin charging workers $40 per month for the family health coverage they had been receiving for free. "The council was too worried about our public image, employee relations and the political fallout," Stoddard said.


Instead of weakening the union's resolve, the health premium hike only strengthened it. The fees were rescinded in February by hotel owners in hopes of restarting negotiations, which the union hasn't done.

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