11:37 AM: Hotel workers in San Francisco began the third temporary strike in two weeks today, this time at Union Square’s popular Westin St. Francis, where 650 workers walked off the job this morning.

Thousands of workers in San Francisco’s hotel industry–a major source of tourist dollars for the city–have been without new contracts since Aug. 14.

They’re particularly upset over what they claim are hotel managements’ refusals to budge on reductions in health and retirement benefits.

Management is equally adamant about the union’s refusal to negotiate.

The union Unite Here Local 2 is negotiating separately with the management of 61 San Francisco hotels, including Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott, Starwood, Intercontinental and Fairmont. Union members at 31 of those hotels voted Oct. 22 to authorize strikes.

The union represents thousands of room cleaners, cooks, food servers, bellmen, bartenders and dishwashers.

Over the past two weeks, three-day strikes intended to pressure hotel management have been carried out at the Grand Hyatt, the Palace Hotel and today at the Westin St. Francis. The Grand Hyatt and Palace Hotel strikes began on Nov. 5 and Nov. 10, respectively.

St. Francis employees will return to work Saturday morning, but as with the other two strikes, they are calling for visitors to boycott the hotels.

The St. Francis, like the Palace Hotel, is managed by Starwood Hotels and Resorts.
Union spokeswoman Riddhi Mehta claimed Starwood and Strategic Hotels and Resorts, which owns the Westin St. Francis, are using the economic downturn as an excuse to make cutbacks but are actually still making sizable profits.

Mehta said the St. Francis “is perhaps one of the most profitable hotels” in the ownership group’s portfolio.

She said the union’s one-year contract proposal would cost the hotel an additional $435,000 to maintain health and retirement benefits at the current levels and to allow for “very modest” wage increases.

Attorney Richard Curiale, who represents Starwood in the negotiations, said this morning that the idea the hotels are trying to take away affordable health care from working families “is completely untrue.”

Curiale said the hotel has asked for employees to contribute an additional $5 per month to their health care premiums, which he said “is not going to hurt anybody.”

The issue is skyrocketing health care costs, which is affecting businesses across the country, Curiale said.

“The hotel owners have said that we can’t continue to do this,” he said.

Curiale said the hotel workers “are being misled” by the union.

“They’re going to lose more on one day on the picket line than we’re asking them to contribute in one year,” he said.

Hotel management is additionally asking that there be no new retiree medical coverage for new hires, Curiale said.

The current contracts provide medical coverage to all retirees for the rest of their lives, “but that (system) is going to come crashing down,” he said.

Mehta said there has been no progress in negotiations since the temporary strikes began, and if that continues, “then there certainly will be more strikes,” she said.

In 2004, San Francisco hotel workers were locked out for seven weeks during a contract dispute. The employees eventually returned to work, but a new contract was not agreed upon until 2006.

“We hope we don’t have to wait that long,” Mehta said. She said the current striking union members “understand that it’s a sacrifice that they need to do.”

The workers will picket night and day over the next three days, taking turns during what would be their respective shifts at work.

Curiale maintained that the three-day strikes have “zero impact” on hotel operations, as workers from two other unions are still on the job, and Starwood has the capacity to move staff to other hotels as the need arises, he said.

He added that he is “not confident” an agreement would be reached soon, but he called for the parties to return to the negotiating table.”

“There has to be compromise,” Curiale said.

7:54 AM: Hotel workers in San Francisco began a three-day strike early this morning at one of the city’s premiere hotels, the third such strike in as many weeks.

Approximately 650 hotel workers and members of Unite Here Local 2 walked off the job at the Westin St. Francis in Union Square at 4 a.m. today, union leaders said.

Similar strikes occurred earlier this month at the city’s Grand Hyatt and Palace hotels. Union leaders said workers are concerned with reductions in health and retirement benefits being asked for by hotel management.

The strike is planned to last until the first shift on Saturday morning.

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