Only moments before some 2,500 workers at seven major Los Angeles hotels were to be locked out by their employers, leaders of UNITE HERE Local 11 and the L.A. Hotel Employers’ Council (EC) reached a tentative contract agreement in the early hours of June 11.

Key provisions of the agreement, announced at a 5 a.m. news conference by Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa, include a 65-cent wage increase over the life of the contract, maintenance of free family health care benefits, and a new provision allowing workers to use sick time to deal with family issues. The agreement is to expire in November 2006, a key union demand because contracts in Boston, New York, Chicago and other cities also expire in that year. Workers must still ratify the pact.

Villaraigosa, Local 11 head Maria Elena Durazo and African American City Councilman Martin Ludlow, nominated to succeed the late Miguel Contreras as leader of the L.A. Federation of Labor, played leading roles in reaching the new agreement.

The EC had planned to lock the hotel workers out in retaliation for a June 9 strike at the Hyatt West Hollywood, which demanded return of over $500,000 in health care co-pays unilaterally imposed by the EC. Many workers said they could not afford the fees. Over 500 families dropped their health care plans because of the co-pays, and some were forced to place their children in taxpayer-supported programs. The National Labor Relations Board later said the EC action was illegal and reportedly was preparing to issue complaints against the hotels.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the drama continued for 4,000 hotel workers at 14 of the city’s most prestigious hotels. Again, health care took center stage.

On June 9 nearly 750 UNITE HERE Local 2 members gathered with other labor and community supporters at the Four Seasons on Market Street before marching to express their dissatisfaction over the employers’ latest proposal.

After over 100 days with no negotiations, the two sides met May 31, and the hotels proposed lower health care co-pays than they had previously proposed, but union leaders called the change insignificant. Linked to that are employer-proposed changes in health care eligibility that the union says could eliminate health benefits for up to 1,000 banquet servers and “extra” workers hired from the hiring hall.

The San Francisco workers have been without a contract since September 2004. Talks continue, but no progress has been reported.