Calling in the feds

Pub date June 12, 2007


An upscale Emeryville hotel embroiled in a nasty, yearlong labor dispute appears to have called on the owner’s conservative political connections to bring about an immigration audit of the hotel. Worker advocates say the move was an effort to intimidate immigrant workers involved in a campaign to enforce a living-wage law.

Kurt Bardella, a spokesperson for US Rep. Brian Bilbray (R–San Diego), told the Guardian that a representative of the Emeryville Woodfin Suites contacted Bilbray’s office for assistance Feb. 1.

The request came within weeks of Alameda County Superior Court and Emeryville City Council rulings requiring the Woodfin to rehire the 21 workers it fired just before Christmas, allegedly due to worker Social Security numbers not matching federal records. That injunction was in effect pending an investigation of workers’ claims that the hotel had retaliated against them for organizing to enforce Measure C, a living-wage law passed by Emeryville voters in 2005.

"We were contacted by one of the HR people at the Woodfin Suites," Bardella told us. "They told us about the situation" and explained that they "had no mechanism" to deal with it, he said.

Bilbray, who chairs the House Immigration Reform Caucus and is one of the most vocal opponents of the recent immigration bill, wrote directly to the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in February to request that it investigate the immigration status of Emeryville Woodfin Suites employees in order to "to create a mechanism for the employer to address this issue."

Bilbray represents the suburban San Diego district in which Woodfin Suites president Samuel Hardage lives. "We treated this as a constituent issue," Bardella told us.

Hardage is not only a constituent; he has consistently contributed to Bilbray’s campaigns for at least the past 13 years, donating $4,200 in 2006. A George W. Bush Pioneer, having raised $100,000 for the 2004 election, Hardage is also a major player in California and San Diego Republican politics.

Workers say the ICE audit was an intimidation tactic that should not have been used against them while they were trying to assert their rights, and ICE’s internal policies raise questions about whether the agency should have gotten involved in this labor dispute.

For months the Woodfin Suites has tried to justify firing workers who organized for better labor conditions by alluding to fears of reprisal by ICE. In a May 8 San Francisco Chronicle op-ed, General Manager Hugh MacIntosh castigated the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), a labor-affiliated think tank that supports the hotel’s workers, for "resorting to well-worn intimidation schemes to secure workers’ support for their organization drives."

The "fact that our hotel has been asked by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to provide employment records, coupled with the agency’s raids in the Bay Area, suggests that our actions are anything but voluntary," he wrote.

The Bilbray connection significantly undermines this claim and could be significant in a pending state lawsuit by the workers. It is against the law for an employer to fire workers for organizing for better working conditions, regardless of immigration status. Under current immigration laws, however, it is also common.

"Employers often contact immigration authorities … in order to avoid liability," Monica Guizar, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, told us. "It is a well-known and documented tactic that employers use to stymie union organizing campaigns [and] escape liability for vioutf8g workers’ rights."

In recognition of this abuse, memorandums from the Department of Labor and internal ICE regulations have been established to dissuade worksite interventions when a labor dispute is occurring. Advocates have successfully invoked these guidelines to terminate deportation proceedings and prevent raids in the past, but immigrant workers are still incredibly vulnerable.

ICE Special Agent’s Field Manual section 33.14(h) requires that agents use restraint where a labor dispute is in progress and the complaint about employees’ immigration status "is being provided to interfere with the rights of employees to … be paid minimum wages and overtime; to have safe work places … or to retaliate against employees for seeking to vindicate those rights."

Additionally, a 1998 memorandum of understanding between the Department of Labor and ICE (then known as the INS) directs immigration agents to "avoid inappropriate worksite interventions where it is known or reasonably suspected that a labor dispute is occurring and the intervention may, or may be sought so as to, interfere in the dispute."

Guizar confirmed that these regulations are still in place under ICE. Monica Virginia Kites, a spokesperson for ICE, declined to comment on these internal regulations.

At a noisy Saturday-morning picket in front of the Emeryville Woodfin Suites, Luz, a 42-year-old from Mexico City, told the Guardian that managers never questioned her immigration status during the three years she was a housekeeper at the hotel — until she started working with EBASE to enforce Measure C.

One day, Luz told us, her manager rushed her and other workers into the hotel’s attic, because "ICE was driving around outside and could come." According to Luz, the manager told them that "this could be a result of us supporting Measure C or working with EBASE."

The measure mandates a $9 per hour minimum wage for hotel workers and requires overtime pay for employees who clean more than 5,000 square feet of floor space during a shift. The Woodfin contributed $27,500 to an anti–Measure C campaign committee, filed two unsuccessful lawsuits that challenged its constitutionality, and then simply failed to comply with the law.

"They said we weren’t entitled to rights because we were immigrants," Luz recalled. "They started to say that our Social Security numbers didn’t match and that we would have to leave. This problem never came up until we asked for our rights."

In September 2006, Woodfin workers filed a class-action lawsuit seeking back pay. The Woodfin finally agreed to come into compliance with Measure C the following month, but it also told almost 30 workers that it had found problems with their Social Security numbers. On Dec. 15, the Woodfin suspended 21 workers and gave them two weeks’ notice that they were to be fired.

On the extensive Web site the Woodfin has devoted to the dispute, the hotel claims it was "forced to move to terminate their [workers’] employment" after receiving Social Security Administration "no-match" letters for them. "Today," it claims, "failure to act appropriately on a no-match letter may be considered evidence of an employer’s conscious disregard for the law."

This is false, according to Social Security Administration spokesperson Lowell Kepke. It is in fact "illegal for a company to fire an employee based solely on a no-match letter," he told us.

Because it has been so often abused, the letter itself states that employers "should not use this letter to take any adverse action against an employee…. Doing so could, in fact, violate State or Federal law and subject you to legal consequences."

An emergency ordinance returned workers to the Woodfin while the city investigated their retaliation claims, but on April 27 the hotel defied the ordinance by firing 12 immigrant workers, again citing problems with Social Security numbers.

The city issued a notice of violation; even probusiness city council member Dick Kassis, who opposed Measure C, called the Woodfin’s behavior "morally reprehensible" at a May 1 council meeting. On May 3 police arrested 38 people at a civil disobedience protest supporting the workers in front of the hotel, including Assemblyperson Loni Hancock and Berkeley city council member Kriss Worthington.

The almost maddeningly soft-spoken and reasoned Emeryville city council member John Fricke, who in February was the target of an unsuccessful restraining order filed by the hotel over his alleged "threatening" behavior, posed the following conundrum to us: why would a successful business continue to pursue litigation that is not cost-effective?

"I’m assuming their success is based on their business acumen," he said. Yet as a lawyer, he estimates that attorney fees are well above $100,000, on top of another $100,000 in fees borne by the city and at least that much in worker back pay. "You would think the wise business decision would be to cut one’s losses," he said.

One possible answer: EBASE organizer Brooke Anderson said this is actually an "ideological battle."

The Woodfin’s Hardage has spent more than $230,000 since 2000 to fund conservative politicians and ballot measures, including political committees that have taken antiunion and antitax positions on state and local ballot propositions, according to EBASE. He chaired the San Diego County Republican Party from 1995 to 1997 and has served as a fundraiser in several Republican campaigns.

Hardage cofounded the Project for California’s Future in 2001, which the Heritage Foundation describes as "a multi-year, multi-million dollar project" to prepare Republican candidates for California office and "represents a first-ever program to rebuild the conservative bench from the water board level on up."

The project’s cofounder is Ron Nehring, the passionately antilabor vice chairman of the California Republican Party and senior consultant to Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. Nehring was also once director of government affairs for the Woodfin Suites.

A 2005 report by the Center on Policy Initiatives, a progressive think tank, names Nehring, Hardage, and Norquist among those who have helped the Republicans target San Diego as a model for their plan to radically cut government funding, permanently weaken labor unions, and privatize public services.

The ideological battle manifested itself at the Saturday-morning picket, which pitted roughly 15 College Republicans from Bay Area schools against 25 laid-off workers and supporters, each group with a bullhorn, separated by barricades and cops.

The Woodfin provided free rooms for the student counterdemonstrators, Ryan Clumpner, a UC Davis senior and chair of the California College Republicans, told us. Surrounded by signs such as "Quit ‘Stalin’: Get Back to Work," and "Respect the Law," Clumpner said he was "here supporting the Woodfin, which is being unfairly targeted by unions."

"I’ve actually done housecleaning," he said. Between semesters one summer, he said, he made $7 an hour cleaning rooms at UC Davis; immigrants supporting families in the Bay Area should also be content with this wage, he said. "If they want to make more, they can move up to supervisor positions," he said. "They’re here for a reason. This country is offering economic opportunities. The economic benefit is the reason they’re here, not the problem."

On the other side of the barricades, Luz said, "My idea is that you have to work hard and give a lot to the company so that they give something back to you in return. We gave them the best service, so they should give us reasonable salaries."

Retaliatory actions against immigrants organizing to improve their work situations have increased across the country in the past few years, just as high-profile raids have resulted in the detentions, arrests, and removals from the United States of thousands of immigrant workers.

The Woodfin is "an example of the need for just and fair immigration reform, coupling the legalization of undocumented workers in this country with strong labor- and employment-law enforcement," Guizar told us.

City Manager Pat O’Keefe told us that in the coming few weeks the city will be announcing a decision about its investigation into worker complaints and the Woodfin’s operating permit. *