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A group of San Francisco hotels and the union that represents thousands of their workers quietly returned to the bargaining table in June, nearly two years after their contract expired and more than six months after they’d last met. The 13 hotels � including the Four Seasons, the Palace Hotel and two Holiday Inns near Fisherman’s Wharf � last year turned to a management-side powerhouse, Seyfarth Shaw, to represent them in the negotiations, which had been marked by a strike and lockout. Meanwhile, UNITE HERE Local 2 continues to be counseled by a lawyer who once walked in its members’ shoes. Literally. Kim Wirshing spent more than 20 years as a bartender in the lobby of one of these very hotels, the Hyatt Regency, and had invested more than two decades as a member of HERE. But 10 years ago he left that job to become the union’s staff attorney. Wirshing, a 52-year-old transplant from upstate New York who’s lived in the Outer Richmond for about 25 years, still joins his members and the rest of the union local’s staff on the picket lines during strikes. But despite his fond memories of one demonstration that got him arrested outside the Mark Hopkins, civil disobedience is no longer in his job description. Now his job is to get anyone arrested out of jail. Like Wirshing, a number of attorneys who wind up on the union side of labor law are led there, at least in part, by firsthand experience. Organizing is a natural pipeline, according to a couple of attorneys interviewed by The Recorder. And then there are some former rank-and-file members like Wirshing. For Arthur Krantz, a partner at union-side firm Leonard Carder in Oakland, a college job in the dining hall at Yale University briefly made him a member of Connecticut’s HERE Local 35. As he became a shop steward, joined the executive board and sat on the contract negotiating committee during a year when there happened to be a strike, he got his first in-depth exposure to the labor movement. And though he’s learned much more in the years since, the experience has stuck with him. “You realize the sacrifice involved,” said Krantz. “As attorneys, we can never be the ones making the final decisions because we’re not the ones whose livelihoods are on the line.” Wirshing wasn’t exactly focused on college at age 19 when he left Albany, N.Y., for San Francisco in 1974 and landed a job as a room service busboy at the Hyatt Regency at the east end of Market Street. Though he had been a member of a union at a hotel in Albany, he didn’t know much about them until the late 1970s when he saw a blurb in a union newsletter encouraging employees to become shop stewards, and thought that sounded interesting. His involvement, he said, “just kind of blossomed from there.” While his work with the union � and particularly his first strike in 1980 � was cementing his activism, college was exposing Wirshing to more politics and history, he said. The seminal moment that drove him to law school came around 1987. As he watched the Iran-Contra hearings, he said, it seemed everyone there was either a lawyer, “or spoke like a lawyer.” He didn’t particularly want to be one, but he felt confident that he’d wind up “somehow challenging” people in power. He figured he should speak their language. Enrolling in law school at San Francisco’s New College of California in his mid-30s, he continued to work in the hotel lobby bar, although he cut down from five shifts to four. When the time came to take the bar exam, he tried to go against the grain by refusing to take a bar review course. (His logic: “Aren’t you supposed to learn about what you need to pass the bar in law school?”) He paid for it, failing three times before he gave in and attended a small prep program in a converted Victorian house in the Western Addition. That time, he passed. Once he was sworn into the bar � coincidentally, at the Hyatt Regency � Wirshing had decided he was through with bartending. But he didn’t have his sights set on any particular area of law. Then two people left the staff at Local 2, opening up a spot for a lawyer. It turned out to be, he said, a perfect fit. As an in-house union lawyer, there’s plenty of variety. Between bargaining and arbitrations on behalf of about 12,000 hotel and restaurant employees in San Francisco and San Mateo counties, Wirshing’s practice traverses immigration law, family leave law, contract law, discrimination law, and wage and hour law, among other areas. A hint of indignation surfaces when Wirshing talks about certain treatment by some hotels over the years. He said management treated him differently once he became the union’s attorney. “I always was a bartender,” he said. “Why didn’t you respect who I was at that time?” Delia Medina, a housekeeper at the Hyatt Regency who’s known Wirshing for more than 30 years, said she often calls him to ask his advice on behalf of co-workers. “When you’ve been working a long time [like Wirshing], you know all the problems, you know where the problem’s coming from,” Medina explained in careful English. “And then as a lawyer, you know how to solve the problem.” TASK AT HAND As Wirshing describes it, his union is locked in a struggle to ensure that hotel workers’ jobs become “middle-class jobs,” just like unions in the past fought for manufacturing occupations. The companies sitting across from Local 2 at the bargaining table in San Francisco, though, claim UNITE HERE is largely focused on building its membership. Seyfarth Shaw partner William Dritsas, spokesman for the 13 hotels known collectively as the multi-employer group, points out that Local 2 wants the companies to agree to let employees vote for representation at any non-union properties they acquire locally through a system known as “card check,” an alternative to a secret-ballot election. It’s a substantial issue for the hotel management in San Francisco, said Dritsas, who is also representing some employers in similar negotiations in Hawaii, and “we think it’s part of their national platform.” Organizing new hotels is one goal, Wirshing responded, because the more workers a union represents, the more power it has to set the standard for working conditions. And he and Mike Casey, president of Local 2 and Dritsas’ counterpart at bargaining, said it’s just one of the core concerns for their side, along with health care and retirement benefits, wages and staffing levels. “We’re not negotiating a national contract,” Casey added. “We’re negotiating a contract for the men and women who work in the hotel industry in San Francisco.” During early negotiations in 2004, when Local 2 announced its members would strike for two weeks at four of the group’s hotels, the entire multi-employer group responded with a lockout at all of their properties, which lasted about seven weeks. The negotiations continued but have been on hiatus since late last year. Though there is still no contract in San Francisco, the atmosphere seems to have eased somewhat. Local 2 is still encouraging conventions to take their business to other hotels. But the two sides have crossed into each others’ territory for several sessions, some at Local 2′s no-frills Tenderloin offices, and others at hotels like the Fairmont and the Omni. Sometimes Wirshing’s memories of camaraderie seem to be driving him in his job. His blue eyes practically light up when he talks about picket lines past. And his voice gets reverently quiet when he remembers how, in the aftermath of a motorcycle accident in the 1980s, his co-workers collected about $800 on his behalf. “That,” he said, “is what it’s about. Helping each other out.”

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