Labor Dispute Diverts San Francisco Groups

At least five conventions have canceled their San Francisco events into 2006 as that city struggles with hotel labor woes that already have cost the city an estimated $26 million. And four more groups are considering cancellations out to 2009, according to Mark Thies, vice president of conventions for the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"The dispute doesn't seem like it is going to go away," Thies said. "We have done cartwheels to move attendees out of affected hotels to keep groups."

The fact that hotel workers lack a contract is enough to worry groups that are not directly affected by the current dispute over wages, health benefits and contract terms. Until a contract is signed, planners have to consider the possibility of picket lines at 13 major properties.

"A sales manager was working on a 2012 date and this came up," Thies said. "The dispute definitely hampers our efforts to sell future dates."

The current issue centers on a city-wide hotel and restaurant worker contract that expired in August. In response to a strike threat, 14 hotels locked out their union employees. Noisy picket lines have disrupted a few meetings and produced a couple of dozen arrests, but no violence. Both strike and lockout ended in a cooling-off period, but the union, Unite Here, launched a boycott of the 14 properties.

Hotels affected include the Argent, Crowne Plaza, Fairmont, Four Seasons, Grand Hyatt, Hilton, Holiday Inn Civic Center, Holiday Inn Express & Suites Fisherman's Wharf, Holiday Inn at Fisherman's Wharf, Hyatt Regency, Mark Hopkins, Omni and Sheraton Palace.

The boycott against another property, the Westin St. Francis, was lifted in early September. The Blackstone Group, which owns the St. Francis, announced it would accept union terms, including a contract that expires in August 2006. Union agreements with the San Francisco Marriott, one block from the Moscone Convention Center, also terminate next year. Both properties could become embroiled in union actions as agreements expire.

Earlier this year, Unite Here launched to pitch its position and began contacting planners responsible for San Francisco events. Planners say the overtures ranged from business-like to threatening.

"We are not coming out in favor of either side," said planner Laurie Sharp, president of locally based Sharp Events and past president of the Northern California chapter of Meeting Professionals International. "But we are concerned about the union agenda. Their tactics have overshadowed the message as far as planners are concerned."

The message that San Francisco could be a dicey place to meet is hitting home. Most of the cancellations involved education, government, employee or union groups, but at least one high-tech group, the Apache Software Foundation, fled San Francisco for San Diego.

It is not necessarily that event sponsors or planners back the union, said Jack Samis, president of association management firm IMN Solutions in Arlington, Va. The problem is that potential labor problems cut attendance and revenue.

"Our members will not cross picket lines, and with 6,000 rooms we need all of the San Francisco hotels," Samis explained. "John Marks (SFCVB president) and Moscone (Convention Center) tried to work things out, but there is no resolution in sight."

Samis moved the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans' 2006 convention from San Francisco to Las Vegas. He is hoping to avoid the financial disaster that hit the American Anthropological Association when it moved from San Francisco to Atlanta a month before its November 2004 convention. Only 1,000 of an expected 5,000 delegates went to Atlanta, which cost the group nearly $500,000 in lost revenue and other costs.

As MeetingNews went to press, negotiations were continuing with little apparent movement. Neither side was willing to discuss the dispute in detail.

A major sticking point is union demands for a contract that expires in 2006. That would add San Francisco to a list of major convention destinations from Hawaii to New York with contracts that also expire next year.

"We are the pawn of the union's larger agenda," Thies said. "When you are calling the planner who is bringing in 10,000 people and telling him not to come, you are creating a reservoir of ugly ill will that none of us can afford."