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The Coming Summer Storm

Next summer, will Hawaii get caught up in a national hotel workers strike?

Last April, union workers at Turtle Bay Resort came close to ending years of negotiations and ratifying a contract.  Concerns about the contract’s expiration date—introduced at the last second—became a make-or-break issue. The hotel management wanted a standard-length agreement, three to five years. The union wanted a contract that ended in June 2006. They are still at a stalemate.

Local 5’s Hawaii leaders would not return phone calls on the subject. But Abid Butt, Turtle Bay’s vice president and general manager, insists that demand for the early expiration date originated at Local 5’s national headquarters. The national union is mounting an organized effort to synchronize the expiration of hotel labor contracts in June 2006.

If contracts expire simultaneously in major tourist destinations like New York, San Francisco, Florida and Hawaii, the union would gain considerable leverage. The threat of a wide-scale strike could win concessions for low-paid hotel workers. However, in Hawaii, even a threatened strike could cripple the state’s $11-billion tourism industry. “Imagine when our customers start to hear that,” notes Keith Vieira, senior vice president of Starwood Hotels and Resorts. “Hawaii is a difficult enough sale.”

The potential for labor trouble—scheduled for the beginning of the busy summer travel season next year—has garnered press attention in San Francisco, Miami and
Los Angeles, where union workers sought deals that would align their next contract’s termination date with those at other regional hotels. Many hotel operators in these tourism-reliant areas are pushing hard for alternative dates of expiration. In Los Angeles, for instance, a tentative contract would end in November 2006, averting a coordinated walkout.

But the problems have already begun. A San Francisco Chronicle editorial called for a halt in the ongoing dispute and claimed that rumblings of a prospective strike have driven coveted convention business elsewhere, denying the city millions of dollars in  revenue.

Turtle Bay Resort has already felt the bitter effects of nearly four years of labor negotiations and picketing. Vieira says Starwood is poised to enter negotiations, but if the matter isn’t settled, nearly all of Waikiki’s major hotels could be affected, as well. In San Francisco’s case, documented evidence indicates that union members called potential visitors and told them to avoid the destination. “We truly hope that doesn’t happen in Hawaii.”

In the Islands, where the economy is still a long way from diversification, the tourism industry is busy making contingency plans. “My personal opinion is that it will be devastating,” says Butt. The effect is not limited to the hotels. As with the tourism slowdown after Sept. 11, the pain extends to suppliers, travel agents, airlines  and customers—not to mention workers who endure lost wages.  The effects could last far beyond the actual conflict. “You don’t quite recover from these things overnight, and unfortunately, I can tell you that from personal experience," says Butt.

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,August

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