Washington hotels and the union representing their employees plan to meet this morning for the first negotiations in six days over a new contract covering 3,800 D.C. hotel workers.

Officials on both sides said they hope to avert a strike but that the prospects will hinge on whether the other side will yield on the most intractable issue on the table: the length of a contract.

The 14 large hotels involved insist on a three-year contract to replace the one that expired Sept. 15, as has been the practice in the past. Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 25 insists on a two-year contract, seeking to gain negotiating leverage by having it expire the same year as contracts in New York, Chicago and other major cities.

"The hotel bargaining group is hopeful that union representatives will contribute productively to the discussions with a serious consideration of the three-year term of the proposed contract since it allows health insurance costs to be locked in for that time period," said Hotel Association of Washington spokeswoman Lynn Lawson.

"We're glad the hotels have decided to come back to the table, and we're hopeful they're willing to honor the requests the workers have put before them," said Amanda Cooper, a spokeswoman for Local 25.

Today's meeting is the latest turn in a strange week for the city's hotel business. Within minutes after hotel executives walked out of negotiations last Wednesday, union officials said they were inclined to strike -- and threatened to do so soon -- to get their demands fulfilled.

Every day since, Local 25 Executive Secretary-Treasurer John A. Boardman has repeated that a strike was imminent. Local unions in San Francisco and Los Angeles also have threatened to strike any day as part of a nationwide battle that the national hotel workers union Unite Here has launched over similar issues.

In Washington, both sides have been in limbo. Hotels braced for a strike, posting security guards around their properties and lining up replacement workers. Local 25 has held numerous training sessions for pickets and taken other planning steps.

The meeting scheduled for today, to be held at the Prince Hall Masonic Temple on U Street NW, holds out the possibility that the sides can find common ground and avoid a strike. But sources on both sides said the odds were not good.

In past negotiations, when the hotels and the union reached an impasse, the two sides arranged back-channel talks, according to two sources, one affiliated with each side.

A small number of representatives for each side met for dinner in the private room of a restaurant or another neutral location. They talked frankly about ways to compromise, paving the way for an eventual deal that would be hammered out in formal negotiations.

In the current negotiations, no such talks have occurred, with neither side showing a willingness to compromise even in an informal setting, according to the sources, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.

In urging workers to prepare for a strike, Local 25 has assured members it would provide for their health care needs.

A union official said yesterday that if hotels cancel health care insurance for employees during a strike, the union would buy coverage for those in immediate need of care, such as pregnant women and those with surgeries scheduled. The union would use the federal COBRA law that permits workers to extend company health insurance for a time if they are laid off or, in this case, on strike.