Hotel labor contracts may not be on the radar screen for most planners, but maybe they should be — particularly for those planning large meetings in union cities such as San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C.

When this article was written in mid-October, labor disputes had caused a lockout at 14 San Francisco hotels and a strike watch at another 23 hotels in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Negotiators were haggling over wages, health insurance costs, pensions, and contract expiration dates for more than 10,500 banquet staff, housekeepers, and restaurant and lounge workers. The national hotel union Unite Here was looking to change the usual three-to six-year contract terms to two years in all three cities.

Meetings in the labor-challenged cities appeared to be largely un-affected, despite the fact that some planners reported getting calls from the hotel union urging them to cancel. Aside from cutbacks such as limited menus and no room service, most affected hotels maintained an acceptable level of service by hiring replacement workers and flying in extra staff from properties in other cities.

“We believe we're providing the service level that groups are looking for,” says Joseph McInerney, CHA, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. “Each hotel has its own plan for dealing with a strike or lockout.”

As local negotiations drag on, however, the long-term implications for major meeting markets are hitting home. If Unite Here successfully bargains for a 2006 contract expiration date in San Francisco, the same year that contracts expire in seven other cities, the union would gain unprecedented leverage. Threat of a national strike could deter groups from booking 2006 meetings in union cities that year.

It's unfortunate today that major events must be planned around “the unpredictability and uncertainty of whether those events will be interrupted by work stoppages, boycotts, or embarrassing and noisy press activity,” says Allen Roberts, an employment law and labor relations attorney with Epstein Becker & Green, P.C., New York. “The idea of force majeure may accomplish release from a contract obligation, but at the end of the day, the group isn't looking for a refund, it needs to proceed with an effective and well-run event.”