Massage therapists and other spa employees could be starting an industry trend at the Claremont Resort in Oakland, Calif.

140 massage therapists and other spa workers at the elegant Claremont Resort and Spa here are trying to form a union. The hotel, an 87-year-old landmark that straddles the border of Oakland and Berkeley, is resisting the effort. Politicians in both cities have stepped in on the side of the employees.

Spa workers at the Claremont Hotel told Sacremento Bee reporter Herbert Sample that 'discontent has brewed for much of the 1990s over wages, benefits and conditions. The anger boiled four years ago when KSL Recreation Corp., a unit of KKR & Co., bought the hotel, required the spa workers to reapply for their jobs at lower pay, and fired several older massage therapists. The therapists sued for age discrimination, and the case was settled out of court.

Spa workers also are seeking better basic pay, now pegged at $6.75 an hour, and a larger cut of massage fees, which at the Claremont can be up to $152 for 80 minutes. Spa therapists at the Claremont must work a minimum of 32 hours to be eligible for benefits. Most massage therapist and aestheticians can't work that many hours without burn-out and repetitive strain injuries.

Claremont spa employees want what the hotel's unionized employees get -- better health care benefits that kick in at 20 hours a week, and job security. 'Claremont is pretty much charging ... the highest rates in the area, and pays their therapists the lowest,' massage therapist Olaf Fischer told Sample.

A victory by the Claremont's spa workers could spur unionizing at other spas.