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Two consecutive three-day strikes by hotel workers signaled a change in strategy for local labor, which is struggling to hold on to past gains in an increasingly bitter contract dispute during this economic downturn.

Hotel employees affiliated with UNITE HERE! Local 2 walked off the job at the Grand Hyatt on Nov. 6, kicking off a 72-hour work stoppage that labor organizers said was centered on the Hyatt but aimed at more than a dozen luxury hotels staffed by Local 2 workers.

Another strike, in front of the Palace Hotel, started Nov. 10 and ended at midnight Nov. 12. In both actions, hundreds of Local 2 members and other supporters expressed frustration at the hotels, claiming the hotel industry is scaling back employee benefits while reaping impressive profits.

"The hotel industry pulled down $110 billion in profits last year," said Mike Casey, president of Local 2, which represents approximately 12,000 hospitality workers in San Francisco and San Mateo. "Despite the so-called down economy, we feel like we should be able to move forward, at least modestly."

Casey and other Local 2 organizers pointed to the recent windfall of the Hyatt chain’s owners, the Pritzger family, who scooped up $950 million in an initial public offering for the company. "One family is getting all this money, and they’re quibbling over $250,000," said Casey, referring to the amount he says it would take to meet all of the local union’s demands.

Meanwhile, stalled negotiations have left workers without a contract since Aug. 14. Key factors in the dispute involve proposed rule changes for new hires and cuts in health care coverage that striking workers called unacceptable.

"We’re seeing an average increase in health care costs of about 12 percent per year," said Jeff Myers, a banquet waiter at the Westin St. Francis, and a member of Local 2’s 125-person negotiating team. "The hotel is paying for 2 percent of that."

"We expect to be in a long fight," said Carlos Narvaez, a 13-year employee at the Palace Hotel, where he works as a purchasing clerk. "But it’s a fight for justice, not only for us, but for new hires, who would be most affected."

Narvaez explained that under the new contract proposed by the hotels, new hires would be ineligible for pensions, and probationary periods for benefits would be extended from months to years. "If they’re planning to replace us, (new employees) don’t know what’s coming."

The tactic of going after one hotel at a time, rather than a blanket work stoppage, indicated the union’s desire to put pressure on hotel owners while limiting economic hardship to the rest of the city, and the potential for negative blowback. The latest round of negotiations broke down Nov. 12 when Hyatt rejected Local 2’s proposal for a one-year contract with some concessions on pay, rather than the customary five-year deal.

"You can’t have it both ways. If you want a cheap contract, fine, we’ll do it for a limited time. You can’t have a cheap long-term contract," Casey said, noting a one-year contract is partly a bet by Local 2 that the economy will be in better shape next year.

It also happens to line up with contract expiration dates for UNITE HERE! hotel workers in several cities throughout the U.S. and Canada, potentially giving the union greater leverage in contract negotiations next year.

At the Grand Hyatt strike, workers marched several blocks to the Westin St. Francis, where they held an impromptu picket for 20 minutes before returning to the Grand Hyatt. "It’s just a taste of what could happen," Casey said, splitting the group into two disciplined forces that filled the sidewalk while leaving the entrance to the St. Francis clear.

"They’re afraid it’s going to turn into 2004," Casey said of hotel owners, referring to a two-week stalemate in 2004 in which hotels reacted to the strike by locking out employees of several hotels and bringing in workers from other locations in an attempt to break the strike. But Casey said new times call for new tactics.

"If we did it the same way each time, [management] would be ready for us," Casey said. "We have to keep them on their toes" while staying visible and building incremental support for strikes. "If the strikes last long enough, a boycott could build that would be truly widespread. But let’s hope the hotels come to their senses before then."

The picket lines were festive and noisy, with union members banging drums and shouting catchy call-and-response slogans into no fewer than six bullhorns.

"What time is it?" the bullhorns blared. "It’s checkout time!" the picket line called back. Valets and bellhops at the Grand Hyatt, most wearing foam earplugs and sunglasses, winced as one man beat a large, ornate kettle drum less than five feet from the lobby entrance.

"This is designed to be measured and escautf8g," Casey said of the single-hotel strike approach. Though the two strikes have ended, Casey said boycotts remain in place for both the Grand Hyatt and the Palace Hotel, whose lavish centennial gala last weekend was marred by an additional Local 2 protest outside.

Hotel representatives have been taciturn about the dispute and its impact, issuing short, carefully-worded responses expressing disappointment at Local 2’s actions, and offering sheepish apologies to surprised guests. No hotel representatives were available to speak on record as of press time

Elena Duran, a server at the Palace Hotel, said behind-the-scenes operations have been thrown into disarray by the strikes. "Yesterday there was a fire in the kitchen," Duran said during the Palace strike, "because the new workers don’t know what they’re doing."

Any hotel labor dispute invariably invites comparisons with the 2004 strike. In that conflict, Mayor Gavin Newsom personally intervened, shaking hands with striking workers and declaring that San Francisco would not do business across picket lines. The mayor’s office did not respond to queries about the latest dispute. Local 2 press coordinator Riddhi Mehta said Casey and other union members, as well as their counterparts from the hotels, met with Newsom Nov. 10 for "informational purposes."

City Attorney Dennis Herrera, a likely mayoral candidate, stopped by the picket lines at the Grand Hyatt to offer words of support, telling the cheering strikers: "We are a world-class city. It’s not about the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s not about the views. It’s not about the cable cars. It’s about the work that you do every day."

While Local 2 organizers would welcome Newsom’s renewed support, they aren’t holding their breath. Rumors that Newsom had cut short his vacation to help defuse the situation were greeted with cautious optimism by negotiating team members.

Myers said the hotels were essentially attempting to externalize their employee’s health care costs, which would impose a burden on the city budget. Because of San Francisco’s universal health care program, Myers said, "If hotel workers can’t pay their co-pay, that cost will go to the city. That is abundantly clear to the mayor."