SF hotels' fight with union attracts national attention

SAN FRANCISCO: Fourteen of San Francisco's top hotels are involved in a bitter public dispute with union employees that some say has tarnished the city's tourism image.

SAN FRANCISCO: Fourteen of San Francisco's top hotels are involved in a bitter public dispute with union employees that some say has tarnished the city's tourism image.

At the heart of the issue are contract talks between the hotels and Unite Here Local 2, which represents 8,000 hotel workers, including 4,300 workers locked out from their jobs after their contracts expired. Workers have been picketing the hotels for several weeks.

Talks began in July, but stalled in September. Union members initiated a two-week strike against the hotels after their contract expired. The hotels retaliated with a lockout. Calls to Unite Here were not returned.

"Going into this, we knew the hotels had to be ready to communicate," said Barbara French, CEO and president of PR firm Reputation, which is working with the affected hotels. "The hotels and Local 2 have enjoyed positive labor relations over the years, but San Francisco has also been targeted for what is a very national fight."

In 2006, contracts in nine other cities will also expire. Local 2 wants a two-year contract, so it can join those cities in 2006 to negotiate simultaneously.

The fight has gone from being a regional story to a national one, with coverage including a recent piece in The New York Times. Mayor Gavin Newsom generated more interest in the story when he expressed solidarity with the hotel employees and briefly joined a picket line.

The hotels have focused their messaging on their desire to get both sides to the negotiating table, said French. Because San Francisco was chosen as a battleground for what will be a national issue in 2006, French said she anticipated that the rhetoric would intensify.

The hotels are emphasizing that the ongoing battle is not good for the city, employees, or tourists, said French.

"Many of the hotel general managers have been in San Francisco for a while," she said. "They are aware this is a Democratic town, a labor town. So every step of the way we've paid attention to that. They've been focused on letting everyone know they want to focus on negotiations, that they want to ensure long-term stability."

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