BY 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., while negotiators haggled over wages, health insurance costs, pensions, and contract expiration dates. With the national hotel union, Unite Here, encouraging workers to hold out for better benefits and a two-year contract, hotel management continued to deliver service, using non-union workers where necessary.

Meetings in San Francisco had been largely unaffected at press time, despite the labor lockout that began October 13 on the heels of a 14-day strike. The American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition, held October 9 to 13 at Moscone Convention Center, began talking to facilities about contingency plans when it became apparent that workers would walk out at six of the 11 hotels housing the meeting's 5,800 delegates.

“I should have known when those contracts were coming up for negotiation so I could have avoided this situation,” says Donna Karl, CMP, director of convention and meeting services for the Chicago-based association. “I got calls from the union hassling me to cancel the meeting.”

As negotiations drag on, the long-term implications have begun to hit home: If Unite Here successfully bargains for a 2006 contract expiration date in San Francisco, the same year that contracts in seven other cities expire, the union will gain unprecedented leverage. Threat of a national strike could deter groups from booking meetings in union cities that year.

“It's not optional to plan major events 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 lawyer 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.”

Look for more on the implications of hotel strikes in our December issue.