Fighting back

Pub date June 19, 2007


It was a week of triumph for workers and union activists opposing the conservative agenda of the owner and operators of the Emeryville Woodfin Suites hotel.

The Guardian last week ("Calling in the Feds," 6/13/07) revealed that the hotel called on its owner’s political connections to blow the immigration whistle on housekeepers involved in a campaign to enforce a living-wage law at the Woodfin. That revelation came a day after Emeryville city officials ordered the hotel to pay $125,000 in back wages and $31,500 in fines for failing to show it was paying adequate wages.

The Woodfin chain has fought the living-wage law, Measure C, since even before voters approved it in 2005, originally refusing to comply. Then the Woodfin Suites fired workers who were organizing to enforce the measure, claiming they were undocumented immigrants. After being ordered by the city to reinstate the workers, hotel officials claimed the firings were justified by an April immigration audit by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The Guardian found that US Rep. Brian Bilbray (R–San Diego) asked ICE to investigate the hotel after a representative of the Emeryville Woodfin Suites — whose president, Sam Hardage, has close ties to Bilbray — contacted his office for assistance Feb. 1. That revelation was at the center of a June 13 rally at the Oakland Federal Building by members of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), which helped pass Measure C and supports the laid-off workers.

"It is now clearer than ever that [the Woodfin’s] real motive was to get rid of workers who were standing up for their rights," organizer Brooke Anderson said through a loudspeaker.

Among those at the rally were Berkeley City Council member Kriss Worthington, Emeryville City Council member John Fricke, and representatives of California Assembly member Sandré Swanson (D-Oakland) and US Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland).

Lee’s district director, Leslie Littleton, said Lee was "proud to stand strong with the Woodfin workers in support of their continued fight for the back pay that they are owed," and cited Lee’s "strong opposition to the ICE raids that have been terrorizing our community."

Littleton also said Lee was "deeply concerned by the allegations that another member of Congress — acting on behalf of a campaign contributor — may have gotten a federal agency to intervene in that dispute in a way that hurts workers in my district."

Emeryville special counsel Benjamin Stock told the Guardian that letters between Bilbray and ICE located as a result of our article will be cited in a pending lawsuit charging Woodfin officials with retaliating against whistle-blowing workers. It is against the law for an employer to fire workers for organizing for better working conditions, regardless of immigration status.

In a prepared statement, Woodfin officials said they contacted Bilbray’s office "to be certain we were in compliance with all laws governing our business." They claim that Measure C’s regulations "directly contradict federal immigration laws and violate the Constitution’s due-process clause." Both of the Woodfin’s federal lawsuits challenging Measure C’s constitutionality have been rejected; the last was dismissed June 7.

Emeryville has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars litigating these two federal court cases and a pending state court case and processing worker complaints. The Woodfin now says it will appeal the city’s decision regarding back wages. City officials are urging the Woodfin to accept defeat.

"Please," Emeryville City Attorney Mark Biddle said, "let’s move on with life. Measure C is a pretty simple concept, and all the other hotels seem to be on board." The Woodfin, he told us, can "either keep fighting a useless cause and continue ringing up the bill or pay the workers what the law requires."