|By Marie Vasari, The Monterey County
Herald, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Business News
Aug. 23, 2006 - It's been 24 years since Monterey County hotel workers went on strike, but that era may be nearing its end.
Fueled by stalled contract negotiations between the hotel workers' union and the Hyatt Corp., employees at the Hyatt Regency Monterey and Park Hyatt at the Carmel Highlands Inn will vote today on whether to authorize a strike against their employer.
Votes will be counted after the union's 5 p.m. meeting at the Best Western Beach Resort in Monterey and will likely be announced Thursday.
Employee contracts at the hotels expire Tuesday, said Unitehere! Local 483 President Julius de Vera.
Hotel and union representatives last met Aug. 17, their eighth bargaining session, which de Vera described as far apart on health benefits and wages. Another session is tentatively scheduled for Monday
"We've been bargaining and there's not been an impasse or anything like that, but it's been excruciatingly slow," said de Vera. "The main issues are just so far apart."
A strike vote, which requires a simple majority, doesn't necessarily guarantee a strike; it simply opens the doors so the union's negotiating committee can call a strike once the contract runs out.
But the vote -- and the fate of the Hyatt workers -- is particularly significant to Monterey County's hospitality industry, said de Vera. The 485 hotel workers are the first of 10 groups whose contracts expire this year and make up 80 percent of the employee base at the two Hyatts -- from banquet servers and bartenders to groundskeepers and housekeepers.
The union's stance is that Hyatt is putting the workers' health insurance in jeopardy with its proposal, which calls for an increase of 47 cents to its current $3.01 hourly company contribution to the health plan per eligible employee.
But according to de Vera, an independent consultant has determined that to guarantee the solvency of the health plan -- a trust fund called Monterey Culinary Insurance Plan, governed by four union and four employer trustees -- the companies need to put in an additional 32 cents, pushing their contribution to $3.80 an hour.
Hyatt Corp. is also asking for monthly insurance co-payments of $50 for employees and $100 for family coverage, something that's never been required of employees whose hourly earnings run from minimum wage for some tipped employees to around $11 for housekeepers and $15 to $16 for high-end cooks and grounds engineers.
If the union accepts the company's proposal, the company has agreed to remove the employee co-pay, said de Vera, but that would be a gamble in the union's eyes, since it doesn't guarantee adequate reserves. Employees could still be called to contribute co-pays if the fund runs short.
Strike votes are also taking place this week in San Francisco, Chicago and Honolulu.
Hyatt Regency Monterey General Manager Mark Bastis was unavailable for comment, and Highlands Inn General Manager Norbert Relecker's secretary said he wasn't receiving phone calls Tuesday.
What happens with the Hyatt contracts will set the tone for the rest of the Peninsula's hospitality workers, since it sets the standard for other hotels, said de Vera.
Other lodging companies whose employee contracts expire this year are Asilomar Conference Center, Quail Lodge, La Playa, Pine Inn, Best Western Beach Resort, Hilton Garden Inn and Bay Park Hotel.
But the one that matters most this week -- and in the weeks ahead -- is the Hyatt.
"Right now, we're only bargaining with the Hyatt Corp.," said de Vera. "We usually set the pattern with the Hyatt. Once we have a pattern, it's pretty transparent what the union's bottom line is."
Short of a strike, de Vera said the union, which represents more than 1,600 hotel workers, has other pressure tactics it could use to push the issue, including public demonstrations, picketing and rallies. Or, said de Vera, "we may start educating the guests through leaflets and other-type tactics."
De Vera said the Monterey Peninsula lags behind other tourism-rich cities such as San Francisco, despite its higher cost of living, so many hotel workers end up shuffling two or more jobs just to pay rent or meet their basic needs.
"It's become very difficult to live on the Peninsula," he said. "But in the past, our members have been able to enjoy affordable health care."
The union has plans for an afternoon Aug. 31 Labor Day March at Fairgrounds and Garden roads in Monterey to draw attention to their fight for better pay and health-care benefits. But it's also part of a longer-range goal to push hospitality workers into the middle class. To do that, the union sees the need to increase its membership and influence, to stand up to the multibillion-dollar companies that hire its members.
"A lot of these hotels have merged into massive global companies," he said.
But the union, which represents employees at more than three dozen hotels, restaurants, and golf courses, has made progress -- hotel giants Hilton and Starwood Corp. have pledged to remain neutral as employees organize. Membership has been holding steady following a dip after Sept. 11, when companies cut staffing.
To some degree, de Vera said there's common ground.
"The companies have agreed with us that it's hard staffing these hotels based on salaries and cost of living," he said. "That's why, if we can realize our vision and get into the middle class, it's a win-win vision for all."
The last time hotel workers walked out was 1982, when a 17-day strike crippled the local hospitality industry. The strike at 22 hotels earned workers two paid sick days, two paid holidays and free meals for housekeepers, maintenance and front desk workers.
"In the past," said de Vera, "we've been able to reach fair agreement." But he's predicting a vote in the 90 percent range today, which is how workers voted in 1982.
"We've got a lot of work to do," de Vera said.
Strike vote looms Hyatt workers at two Peninsula businesses will vote. Simple majority needed. 180 employees at Park Hyatt at Carmel Highlands 305 employees at Hyatt Regency Monterey 485 total Hyatt workers
Marie Vasari can be reached at 646-4478 or mvasari@
Copyright (c) 2006, The Monterey County Herald, Calif.
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