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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 14, 2006

Hotel walkout averted in Bay Area

By Kimi Yoshino
Los Angeles Times

Following nearly two weeks of intense negotiations marked by picket lines and marches, San Francisco hotel workers unveiled a tentative agreement yesterday with 13 hotels, averting a second strike in two years.

The contract, which runs through August 2009, grants higher wages, better pensions and full healthcare benefits to more than 4,200 members of UNITE HERE Local 2, a union of cooks, maids, bellmen and other hotel workers. The accord is retroactive to 2004.

"It shows that when we start together fighting for our rights, we can keep whatever we deserve," said Rafael Leiva, 33, who delivers room-service meals at the Hyatt Regency.

Several other cities also are locked in negotiations, with unions in Toronto; Monterey, Calif.; and Honolulu voting to authorize strikes.

National UNITE HERE officials said the tentative contract in San Francisco as well as landmark partnership agreements this summer with Hilton Hotels Corp. and Starwood Hotels to work together toward labor peace are signs of the union's growth and progress this year.

"Our purpose in 2006 was to challenge the hotel industry to join with us to provide a model for good, middle-class jobs in the service sector," said John Wilhelm, hospitality industry president for UNITE HERE, which was created by the merger of two unions: the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees.

To go into effect, the tentative contract must be approved in a Sept. 22 vote by a majority of the union members who work at 13 San Francisco hotels: Crowne Plaza San Francisco Union Square, Fairmont, Four Seasons, Grand Hyatt, Hilton San Francisco, Holiday Inn Civic Center, Holiday Inn Fisherman's Wharf, Holiday Inn Express & Suites at Fisherman's Wharf, Hyatt Regency, Mark Hopkins, Omni San Francisco, Sheraton Palace and Westin St. Francis.

"We're very, very pleased," said Noah Griffin, a spokesman for the hotel group. "Pending ratification, (the contract) guarantees higher wages, full health-care benefits and security that the employees deserve. That's been our goal throughout."

Under the proposed terms, workers will be granted annual wage increases from 50 cents to $1 an hour, and retroactive pay. Some groups will get additional raises. They will continue to receive full healthcare benefits with minimal co-payments for doctor visits. In addition, the hotels increased to $4,000 from $2,000 the benefits cap for prescription drugs.

For Aurolyn Rush, 61, a switchboard operator at the Grand Hyatt, the doubling of the drug-cost limit lifts a huge burden. Rush, who has beaten breast cancer twice, requires a cocktail of pills, including one that costs $296 a month.

"I had to go in my pocket and pay all of that," Rush said, adding that she has been burning through the $2,000 cap by May of each year. "Now, I just feel so relieved because I don't have to worry. All that pressure is gone."