Employees of 14 major District hotels voted overwhelmingly yesterday to authorize a strike, raising the possibility of a work stoppage in a large portion of the city's tourism industry.
The contract covering 3,800 members of Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 25 expires tomorrow. As of yesterday evening, many of the key disagreements between the two sides had not been broached at the negotiating table.
About 94 percent of union members voted yesterday to let their leaders call a strike if they think it appropriate, union leaders said.
Both hotel executives and union officials said they remain optimistic that a deal can be struck before the old contract expires, but they said that progress yesterday was modest.
"The talks have been constructive, but we still have a lot of work to do," said Frank Otero, general manager of the Hilton Washington & Towers and chairman of the Hotel Association of Washington.
"We're still 50 hours away" from the contract expiring, John Boardman, executive secretary-treasurer of Local 25, said yesterday afternoon. "That's a million years in negotiating time. But we're still very, very far apart."
If the negotiations were to end in a work stoppage, it could have a significant impact on the District's economy. Hospitality and leisure companies account for 7.5 percent of the city's jobs. Hotels are that industry's linchpin, offering accommodations for the millions of visitors a year who eat at restaurants, buy souvenirs and pay tour guides. The negotiations come at a crucial time for travel-related businesses locally, just as activity is returning to the levels before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And fall is usually a boom time for hotels.
"We've worked really, really hard in the last three years to recover from 9/11," said William A. Hanbury, chief executive of the Washington Convention & Tourism Corp. "A strike would be a setback for us, and we absolutely don't want that to happen."
The five largest hotels in the Washington area are at the bargaining table, and the 14 hotels involved together have almost 28 percent of the District's hotel rooms.
Also, an agreement between these hotels and their workers would set a pattern for negotiations at an additional 22 local hotels. These hotels are unionized but negotiate separately and would not be directly affected by a strike.
There has never been a major hotel strike in Washington, so the potential impact is difficult to judge. Hanbury noted that the hotels involved in the negotiations include the largest ones, which handle much of the area's convention business, and that fall is the busy season for conventions.
In yesterday's negotiations, the two sides discussed work quality issues. In particular, the union wants to restrict hotels from increasing the workload of employees, such as the number of rooms each maid must clean in a shift.
The sides had not even begun discussing two other areas of disagreement yesterday. The union wants a $1-per-hour annual raise and continued free health insurance for both current and future employees. The hotels want a 30-cent-per-hour annual raise and leeway to charge health insurance premiums for future, but not current, employees.
Also, the two sides have not formally discussed the duration of the contract.
The union seeks a two-year contract so that it will expire in 2006 at the same time as those of hotel workers in New York, Chicago and several other major cities. The union's parent, Unite Here, is betting it will have more leverage to win wages and benefits from major hotel chains if contracts expire in many cities simultaneously.
"It's the gorilla sitting in the front room," Boardman said of the contract's term.
Jonathan Greenbaum, a partner at law firm Nixon Peabody who represents several local hotels not involved in the labor negotiations, said those hotels are generally sanguine about the outcome of the negotiations.
"I don't think the employees will strike over whether the contract is two years or three," he said, noting that in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where hotel contracts similar to those in Washington expired earlier this year, employees have continued working without a new contract rather than striking.