The patch on the bellman's green blazer says "Gene," but his name is Steve. He doesn't know his way around his hotel, the Sir Francis Drake, and doesn't recognize regular guests. If you ask him to recommend a restaurant in this city of celebrated nightlife, the only one he knows is Burger King.
This fledgling bellman is one of hundreds of bit players in the 20-day-old hotel strike drama in San Francisco.
He and other nonunion workers have been filling in for the maids, bartenders, busboys and cooks from the Hotel. Restaurant and Bartenders Local 2 who are chanting and singing night and day outside 36 of the city's largest and most elegant hotels. Only one-fourth of San Francisco's hotels are affected, but they account for about half the available rooms.
The strike, coming at the peak of the tourist season, is costing the city an estimated $150,000 a day in lost cab fares, T-shirt sales, sales, restaurant tabs and other tourist-related revenues.
Several small conventions have moved to other cities, depriving San Francisco of $2.3 million, and city officials are trying desperately to keep two large upcoming conventions from defecting. Tourism is the city's largest industry, and "when it suffers, everyone suffers," said Robert Sullivan, executive director of the city's convention and visitors bureau.
Last week, Mayor Dianne Feinstein stepped in and began talking to both sides in the dispute, but as of yesterday, progress was stalled. No face-to-face meeting of the full negotiating committee has been held since the 6,000 union workers walker out or were locked out of their jobs July 17.
One meeting was scheduled for Saturday but canceled. Instead, union on officials presented a list of wage and work-rule demands to the director of the Hotel Employers Association, and later that day, the association rejected them.
"Their proposal was unchanged from the day the strike began, except they resurrected 26 previously dropped work-rule items," a hotel association spokesman said yesterday.
At issue is more than wages. Local 2 is upset about room-cleaning quotas, promotions, sick leave and the number of paid holidays. The union, whose members include large numbers of Asians, Hispanics, blacks and other minorities, wants dignity for its workers, says President Charles Lamb, 41, who rose through the ranks of dishwasher, men's room attendant and waiter to take the presidency after a rank-and-file coalition defeated the longtime union boss two years ago.
This is the first hotel strike in San Francisco in 40 years, and the genteel calm of such landmarks as the Fairmont, the Mark Hopkins, the Standford Court and the St. Francis has been ruffled by the chanting demonstrators outside their doors. Guests and workers who cross the picket lines are taunted. "Scab hotel! Scab hotel! Check out! Close 'em down!" The pickets jeer, and hurl obscenities.
"I hold my breath each time I have to walk through the picket line," said Tamami Shibuya, 20, of Tokyo, a guest at the downtown Hilton. Foreign tourists, especially Japanese, make up 30 percent of the city's visitors. Most don't know about the stike before they arrive.
"I've had them ask for plane tickets to Tahoe, Las Vegas or Disneyland -- anywhere but here," said Chimene Hanks, 28, a travel agent who works a few doors away from the Hilton.
The strike has been bitter but generally nonviolent, with the major incidents being the burning of an awning at the Sir Francis Drake, a mailbox bombing in front of the home of the chief hotel negotiator and the arrest of union President Lamb and 45 others at a cacophonous demonstration outside the Hyatt Regency July 22. There, pickets blowing whistles, clanging hubcaps and beating pans violated the city's noise abatement ordinance.
The struck hotels claim they are nearly full, but that is challenged by the union, which points out that tourism was lagging even before the strike because of the recession.
Early in the strike, the 1,800-room Hilton closed, and guests at other hotels had to make their own beds, carry their own bags and forgo dining inside. Some hotels stopped taking reservations, and others gave discounts on their rooms, most of which start in the $100-a-night category.
Hotel managers started fixing drinks and clearing tables, the chains flew in workers from as far away as Dallas and Hawaii, and eager job-seekers, many of them college students, clamored for work. "We had 280 people line up the first day," said a Fairmont aide.
Some were young tourists who decided to extend their stay, like the inexperienced bellman at the Drake. He is Steve Duffy, 21, of Manchester, England, and he and his two traveling companions were in the city, heard about the strike, and signed on.
"It's like the blind leading the blind," Duffy said. But they are earning $26 a day, plus about $10 in tips, and are "having a fantastic time. We love it -- even yelling back at the pickets."
Have they made any blopper? "I did barge in on a room without knocking," Duffy said, "and found three women and a man together in bed. I just put down the ice bucket, said 'Excuse me,' and left."
The Hilton, which has reopened, received a boost when Teamster desk clerks and secretarial workers who previously had been honoring the picket lines were allowed by their union to go back to work.
The level of service varies by hotel, but guests at most of the struck hotels late last week found the ground floor windows covered with plywood sheets (at the ever-correct Clift Hotel, they were color coordinated), all doors locked except main entrances, pickets at each door and a welcoming committee of security guards who asked to see room keys before allowing guests past the door.
Beds were being made, but linens might not be changed nightly. Most of the large restaurants remained closed, but coffee shops and a bar or two at each hotel were open.
"It's not as bad as we had heard," said Ronald Green, mid-40s, a textile executive from Greensboro, N.C., who was walking out of the Mark Hopkins with his wife, Susan, and friends Gail and Gene LeBauer. "But the pickets do keep us up at night doing strike songs." he said.
Union President Lamb sees the conflict as a test of his kind of grass-roots union activism. Local 2 tries for "a participatory democracy," he said, and takes special pains to recognize the diversity of its members. Union Bulletins, for example, are printed in four languages.
Hotel officials are bewildered by the union's 30-member negotiating committee -- part of Lamb's new union style -- and say they aren't used to dealing with issues like dignity and respect at the bargaining table.
"We're at a loss to know how to deal with those issues," said William Crawford, an official of the Hotel Employers Association. "We're used to talking about meat and potatos."
The union rejected a contract that management said would give workers the highest salaries in the business nationwide. Local 2 said the contract took back rights won through arbitation and didn't address issues such as seniority.
"It's respect and the chance to move ahead we're after," said a 42-year-old cook's assistant from Argentina. She has been in the same job for nine years without a promotion, she said, and earns $8,000 a year. "If you are Latino, or from the Philippines, you never move up."