Joseph Plaster

Port tack



The Oakland City Council made an unprecedented move toward environmental justice Oct. 2 by appointing Margaret Gordon to the Oakland Port Commission. It is the first time that a community activist, rather than a businessperson or a political insider, has been named to that powerful body.

The action was roughly equivalent to naming Michael Moore to the board of the National Rifle Association. For years Gordon has led an effort to hold the port accountable for poisoning the air in her neighborhood, where the American Lung Association has found that one in every five children suffers from asthma.

Gordon’s nomination, along with that of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers business manager Victor Uno, signals a clear call for reform from Mayor Ron Dellums, who issued a prepared statement commending the council "for recognizing the importance of appointing individuals who are capable of understanding both the economic and the environmental impact of the various Port facilities."

Gordon’s appointment almost didn’t happen. Dellums withdrew his two nominees from consideration at the council’s July 17 meeting after it became clear that Gordon would have trouble winning the necessary votes. Since that time Dellums has lobbied hard for their confirmation and finally saw Uno approved unanimously and Gordon on a 7–1 vote (Councilmember Desley Brooks voted no).

"The mayor has emphatically stood behind Victor and I," Gordon told the Guardian. "He has a vision for the port. He wants it to be efficient, to grow, but not to cost people’s health. The port is supposed to make money, but it’s not supposed to make people sick."

The appointments come at a critical time. The port is now drafting a long-overdue clean-air plan, while state regulators are developing stringent clean-air requirements for ports. The Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, a national consortium of labor and environmental activists, is also advancing a proposal at Oakland and other US ports that would radically change the way port trucking is structured.

The two appointees, who begin serving immediately, will play key roles in shaping the port’s proposal. The Port Commission could vote on a final comprehensive clean-air plan as early as December. Doug Bloch, coordinator for the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, told us he is "cautiously optimistic" that the seven-member Port Commission will approve his group’s proposal. "We have two votes now," he said.

The coalition seeks to clean the air by improving the sweatshoplike working conditions of port truckers, who often drive the cheapest, most polluting trucks. Its plan calls on the port to require trucking companies to maintain vehicles and hire truckers as employees. The California Trucking Association and the Pacific Maritime Shipping Association have aggressively opposed the plan, which could herald the return of the Teamsters Union. Since they are classified as independent contractors, it is illegal for truckers to join a union. As employees, they would receive benefits and have the option to organize (see "Importing Injustice," 7/18/07).

Uno told us, "Truckers becoming employees is definitely part of the solution. It is clearly one of the ways to address this issue." Asked in July if he thought a proposal could succeed without requiring trucking companies to hire truckers as employees, he said, "I do not see how that is possible, given the lack of regulations in the trucking industry. It’s a dog-eat-dog world among independent truckers."

Gordon told us she is in favor of any plan that improves air quality and truckers’ lives but is not convinced that making them employees is the only way. "All I’m worried about is that small businesses, unions, and community health organizations can work together," she said. "We have to be unified in resolving these issues."

Ray King, general manager of marine operations at the port, told the Guardian that a tentative outline of the port’s plan will be posted to its Web site in the coming weeks, after which it will accept public comments for 30 days.

City Council president Ignacio de la Fuente had been Gordon’s key opposition in July. He told the Oakland Tribune that an appointee was needed "who understands [the port’s] need to be competitive, to be efficient, and to grow. The fact is, we have the responsibility for balance." But at the Oct. 2 meeting, he called Gordon "a great asset" and said her appointment will lead to "the creation of a balanced Port Commission."

For the past year and half Gordon has sat on the cabinet-level working group appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that developed allocation guidelines and detailed clean-air requirements for more than $3 billion in Proposition 1B bond funds approved by California voters last year for port expansion and environmental mitigation projects. Port spokesperson Libby Schaaf told the Guardian that its success in securing these funds will play a central role in its expansion plans.

Councilmember Brooks, the sole vote against Gordon, worries that the plan could hurt the port’s fiscal viability. "This is the fourth-largest port in the US. This is the economic engine of the region. We need to ensure that we move in a direction where it will continue to grow. The port is getting ready to see some very tight times," she said at the meeting. "I told the mayor I hope he proves me wrong with this appointment."

Letters as leverage



It’s a thin, seemingly innocuous letter. The Social Security Administration mails it when names and Social Security numbers don’t match on an employee’s I-9 form. The intent is to make sure workers receive their benefits.

But unions and immigrants have long charged that unscrupulous employers use SSA "no match" letters to harass undocumented workers and squelch union organizing efforts. Now, after a failed immigration debate in Congress, the George W. Bush administration wants to pass a regulation that would explicitly turn the letter into an immigration enforcement tool.

Activists fear this could result in massive firings and retaliation against workers organizing with unions. Employers complain it could lead to an economic slump in industries dependent on undocumented labor. A temporary injunction granted by a San Francisco judge is the only thing holding back letters across the country; it ends Oct. 1.

Bay Area activists have been national leaders at the intersection of immigrant rights and labor movements. They are now shaping national policy on this new regulation in the courts and promise wide-scale street action and workplace walkouts if it goes into effect.

A look at past and present related Bay Area organizing may shed light on the future of the national issue.


US companies file hundreds of millions of W-2 forms with the SSA every year. The SSA uses them to calculate how much it owes workers at retirement. When the name and the Social Security number do not match, the SSA sends a "no match" letter to the employee to clear up the discrepancy. The letters are also sent to employers who have more than 10 employees with no match. These letters have nothing to do with immigration law, and employers are not required to take any adverse action against these employees.

But under the new Department of Homeland Security regulation, no-match letters may be seen as evidence that an employer knowingly employed an undocumented worker. The letters would include a leaflet from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement informing employers that they must fire workers who cannot resolve no matches with the SSA or reverify their work authorization within 93 days. If the companies do not, they may be subject to fines or criminal charges.

The rule was drafted more than a year ago but was not announced by Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff until Aug 10. "The magnet that brings most economic migrants into this country is work," he explained. "And if we have worksite enforcement directed at illegal employment, we strike at that magnet."

Brooke Anderson, an organizer with the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, told the Guardian that this is an unlikely scenario. Workers will not leave the country; they will simply be forced into underground economies, rotate through different jobs, and become even more vulnerable.

Anderson was among a delegation of more than 30 labor, faith, and community leaders that presented a letter Aug. 30 at the regional SSA office in Richmond. The letter outlined their concerns and asked that the SSA send out no-match letters only to employees, not employers.

"DHS is using an incomplete, hodgepodge system intended to ensure our economic security to implement a regressive immigration policy that Bush failed to pass in Congress," Anderson told us. "The SSA as an agency should have a spine and say no to DHS and no to the Bush administration."

If the ICE inserts do go out with no-match letters, she predicts walkouts and massive street actions.

The regulation is also being challenged in a lawsuit filed by the Central Labor Council of Alameda County. The AFL-CIO, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the San Francisco Central Labor Council have joined it. The plaintiffs claim that because the SSA’s database is full of errors, many citizens and legal immigrants could end up losing their jobs. They also argue that the DHS has exceeded its authority by seeking to use the SSA to enforce immigration laws.

US District Judge Maxine Chesney in San Francisco granted a nationwide temporary restraining order Aug. 31, blocking the SSA from sending letters with ICE inserts. The order is in effect until Oct. 1, when another federal judge here, Charles Breyer, will decide whether to grant another injunction.

"DHS is trying to create a huge terror, to give the illusion that they are doing something," Bill Sokol, a lawyer with Weinberg, Roger, and Rosenfeld, the firm representing the Central Labor Council of Alameda County, told us. "Workers are afraid, but we must dial down people’s fear and terror under our new gestapo."

He said the law will have little impact if employers understand it and do not abuse it. If employers overreact, however, the result could be disastrous. Sokol said employers are already firing employees immediately after receiving the letters.


Unions and immigrant workers across the country have charged that no-match letters have been used to stifle workers’ rights since the SSA began sending them to employers in 1994. Activists in the Bay Area have played a key role in resisting these efforts, setting national precedents upholding worker rights.

When a San Francisco Travelodge fired workers after they began organizing with a union in 1999, allegedly due to Social Security no matches, the terminated employees took it to court. The next year they won an arbitrator’s decision that the firing, based solely on no-match letters, was a violation of their union contract.

Local community pressure on the SSA also resulted in the inclusion of cautionary text in the letter. The no-match letter now 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."

Activists at Oakland’s Labor Immigrant Organizers Network wrote a resolution in 1999 asking the AFL-CIO to renounce its support of the employer-sanctions provisions of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, the federal law that for the first time made it illegal for an undocumented worker to hold a job. Their agitation is credited in part for a resolution the AFL-CIO passed in 2000 calling for the repeal of sanctions and for a legalization program for undocumented workers.

The letters remained a potent tool for antiunion activity. A 2003 survey by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that 25 percent of workers listed in no-match letters reported that their employers fired them in retaliation for complaining about inadequate worksite conditions. More than one in five workers reported that their employer fired them in retaliation for union activity.

San Francisco opposed the DHS no-match regulation when it was proposed last year. An August 2006 resolution by the Board of Supervisors said it may lead to employers "using it as a device to fire, intimidate, harass, or underpay employees." It promised that the city would defy the regulation if it received a no-match letter for a city employee.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the US Chamber of Commerce also came out against the regulation.

But some employers embraced the proposed regulation. Uniform manufacturer Cintas fired hundreds of employees across the country, allegedly responding to the proposed guidelines after receiving no-match letters during a union organizing drive. Organizers said the company targeted employees involved in the union and jumped the gun on new regulations.

The Woodfin Suite Hotel in Emeryville fired 21 housekeepers in December 2006, also allegedly due to no-match letters. The workers claim the Woodfin retaliated against them for organizing with the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, a labor-affiliated think tank, to enforce the living-wage law (see "Calling in the Feds," 6/13/07).

A yearlong campaign targeting the Woodfin has brought the issue to a national audience.


Organizers say the regulations are far less strict than the news media has portrayed them, adding to an atmosphere of hysteria and fear among employers and workers. Francisco Ugarte, a lawyer with the Oakland firm of Leonard Carder, held up several San Francisco Chronicle articles at a Sept. 13 workshop for union organizers as examples of media inaccuracies.

An employer is not required to fire an employee after 90 days, as news accounts have stated. The employer has 90 days to fix discrepancies, and the worker has three days after that to fill out another I-9 form with a new Social Security number. If it appears credible, employers must accept the new I-9, Ugarte said.

The ICE insert in the SSA letter will terrify employers, he predicted, but the rule does not create any new information sharing between the SSA and other governmental agencies. The SSA is actually prohibited by law from sharing private data with any other governmental agencies.

There are also no automatic fines assessed to employers, as news accounts have implied. ICE will only levy fines if it raids employers and finds that they did not address no-match discrepancies. It is unlikely that the DHS will be able to enforce the regulations; in announcing them, Chertoff said the agency would rely largely on self-policing.

Even if this is the case, organizers fear that the DHS’s no-match regulation will provide employers with another tool to squelch immigrant workers’ rights. Comprehensive immigration reform is still needed to reconcile employers’ demands for workers, immigrants’ needs for employment, and US immigration policy.*

The death of Polk Street



Click here to read about the Polk’s long, queer history

Kelly Michaels was following the San Francisco dream when she escaped her small Alabama hometown at 17 and hitchhiked westward. It was 1989.

"I had stars in my eyes," Michaels told the Guardian, sitting on the floor of her friend’s small single-room occupancy Tenderloin apartment, hints of a Southern drawl now paired with Tammy Faye mascara and bleached-blonde hair. "When you’re 16 or 17 and have dreams of being famous, you come to California — and you probably end up on Polk Street in drag."

Michaels arrived on Polk with little more than blue jeans, a bra, and rubber falsies to her name, making ends meet as a street sex worker. It wasn’t what she was looking for; the Polk was plagued with drugs and violence. But her dad was embarrassed by his transgendered daughter and didn’t her want her back. The neighborhood was a home.

She found a community at fierce Polk Gulch trans and boy-hustler bars like Q.T. and Reflections, where clientele included one "big, tall, black Egyptian transsexual hell-raiser" known to draw a gun. Scores of boy hustlers "coming in daily from the Greyhound station" danced naked on the bars. At the end of the night, Michaels’s new family members would pool their money and rent a hotel room for $30.

"The bars were the churches, the sanctuaries," Michaels’s friend Terri, an African American man in his 50s, told us. "You weren’t really going to be hassled there."

Not any more. "Polk Street is dead," Michaels told us. "Dead as fuck now."


The new kids on the block are calling it "revitalization."

After the three-decades-old gay bar Kimo’s is transferred to a new owner at the end of September, there will be only two queer bars left on a street that was San Francisco’s gay male center in the 1960s and a gritty, affordable home for low-income queers, trans women, and male sex workers in the following decades. Where scores of hustlers lined up against seedy sex shops and gay bars just a few years ago, crowds of twentysomething Marina look-alikes now clog the sidewalks in front of upscale clubs.

Polk’s queer residents and patrons are now being priced and policed out of their neighborhood — and their city — as business and tourism interests continue to eat away at the city’s center. Lower Polk Gulch, just blocks north of City Hall and one block east of Van Ness, has in the past few years succumbed to multimillion-dollar businesses, upscale lofts, increased rents at SRO hotels and apartments, and a new million-dollar city streetscape beautification plan. The related increase in policing and new efforts to clean up the street is making the area an unwelcoming place for the marginal queers who for so long called it home.

It has been the most down-and-out segments of the queer population — male sex workers, trannies, young people, poor people of color, and immigrants — who have often been the queer population’s boldest and most innovative actors, pushing the movement forward in new ways. What does queer San Francisco lose when our most marginalized members are pushed, policed, and priced out of the city?


Michaels stood under a neon purple Divas sign, advertising the three-story transgender club that has stood in Polk Gulch for more than three decades. Divas manager Alexis Miranda, a friend, stepped outside to chat, and a dozen characters from the neighborhood stopped by to shoot the shit. One man rubbed Miranda’s belly through her leopard bodysuit. "This is my baby," he told us jokingly.

Divas is as much a community center as it is a club. Girls from out of town and out of the country know to come to Divas when they step off the boat, plane, or bus. Many trans immigrants make a living as prostitutes, and while Miranda insists that she does not allow them to work inside the club, the close vicinity of San Francisco’s tranny prostitute district has meant tension for Divas.

Miranda told us the police have been targeting the club because of complaints from new merchants. "Some of the people who have new businesses don’t want the people who live here to stay. They want to close us down," she said. "They’re trying to gentrify the neighborhood."

Neville Gittens, a police spokesperson, told us that the San Francisco Police Department performs "regular enforcement in that area" but said any targeted operations cannot be discussed.

Theresa Sparks, a trans woman who chairs the Police Commission, said Miranda made the same claim at the commission meeting Aug. 15. "I don’t know if that’s true or not," Sparks told us. "My intent is to find out what is going on."

Sparks agreed that gentrification is driving trans people out of the Polk Gulch neighborhood: "It is very, very difficult for a transgendered person to survive in this city."

Miranda pointed to a bar across the street. Until 2000, the Lush Lounge was the cruisy trans and hustler bar Polk Gulch Saloon. Now, under a new owner, white twentysomething heterosexuals sip apple pie martinis.

Sonia Khanna, a 28-year-old trans woman with long, curly brown hair and mocha skin told us she doesn’t feel welcome there. "If you’re a tranny, they think you’re a whore," she said.

Miranda said the owner, Steve Black, ejected her when she went to welcome him to the neighborhood. Miranda, a former empress in San Francisco’s Imperial Court System, reported him to the Human Rights Commission. The inquiry was closed when the owner informed the commission that he allows transgendered people into the bar. He didn’t deny tossing out Miranda; he said he just disliked her personally.

The bigger problem may be the neighborhood’s increased property values. Divas owner and Polk Gulch resident Steve Berkey told us that rents have pushed out other established queer businesses on Polk. The only reason Divas stays open is that he owns the building. "It used to be that so many girls lived in the neighborhood," he said. "They packed the place. But now rents have driven them off."


The reasons behind the death of the queer Polk are complex, likely including the ascendance of the Internet as a social networking tool, rising property costs, and the aging of the bars’ core clientele and owners. But most of the community’s rancor has focused on the most visible manifestation of change: neighborhood associations representing new, upscale businesses working with police and the city to clean up the streets.

At the center of the storm is a glass-walled architecture studio at the bottom of Polk Gulch, around the corner from Divas. Two freshly planted palm trees in front of the studio are conspicuous on a site next door to a bleak, institutional homeless shelter outfitted with security cameras and across the street from a porn shop promising "Hot Bareback Action!"

Case+Abst Architects has been the workplace and home of husband and wife Carolyn Abst and Ron Case since they were lured by the area’s low cost in 1999. The trees were the first of 40 planted in a campaign they initiated last year as cofounders of Lower Polk Neighbors. Abst told the San Francisco Chronicle in September 2005 that she "wants a fruit stand [on Polk Street], and we’ll take a Starbucks too."

The group has had an impact: District Attorney Kamala Harris said at a recent community meeting organized by the LPN that she has responded to association agitation by having representatives of the District Attorney’s Office walk the neighborhood with police and installing high-tech surveillance equipment to gain more criminal convictions. Sup. Aaron Peskin has asked the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development to include the Lower Polk in its Neighborhood Marketplace Initiative, a program designed to revitalize neighborhood business districts. As part of this program, a part-time staff person now acts as a liaison between Lower Polk merchants and police. Another city program is scheduled to spend $1 million on installing new lights and planting trees later this year.

Activists say the LPN focus is not on outreach, therapy, or support for the Polk’s marginalized residents but on pushing undesirables out of the neighborhood and ejecting outreach programs like a local needle exchange.

Last year Abst was the subject of a "wanted" poster put up on Polk by the group Gay Shame. The group calls the LPN a "progentrification attack squad" whose goal is to "remove outsider queers and social deviants from our neighborhood in order to accelerate property development and real estate profiteering."

The hustler bar Club RendezVous lost its lease in 2005 after the property was bought and razed. Its co-owner, David Kapp, didn’t return our phone calls seeking comment, but he told the Central City Extra in February 2006 that a "smear campaign" by the LPN stopped him from relocating down the street. A First Congregational Church is now being constructed where RendezVous once stood. The church was designed by Case+Abst.

Case told us that the Planning Department wanted to see neighborhood support for the RendezVous move. The LPN asked that RendezVous provide security, but the bar’s owners refused. "They always had younger, underage boys hanging out," Case said. "There are a lot of families in this neighborhood. We wished them well, but it’s also a community." He told us he wants not to gentrify the neighborhood but to make it clean and safe.

But safe for whom?

Chris Roebuck, a medical anthropologist at UC Berkeley, told us that the increased policing has also meant increased harassment of trans women. Sex workers, many of them immigrants from Mexico, the Philippines, and Thailand, are "increasingly being pushed into the alleyways, into unsafe spaces," he said. He’s also noticed a criminalization of what he called "walking while trans" in the six years he has spent interviewing trans women on Polk Street.

At a community meeting with the district attorney earlier this month, two trans women said the police, despite sensitivity trainings, do not take them seriously when they report a crime.

"Getting rid of the public space for trans women and drug users is not safe for them," Polk resident Matt Bernstein Sycamore (a.k.a. Mattilda) told us. "Deportation [of immigrant sex workers] is not a safe space. The needle exchange actually does make people safer. Getting rid of it does not make people safer."

Sycamore, editor of the book Tricks and Treats: Sex Workers Write About Their Clients, is concerned with what he calls a "cultural erasure" in the area. "Polk Street has been the last remaining place where marginalized queers can come to figure out how to cope, meet one another, and form social networks," he told us. "That sort of outsider culture has been so dependent on having a public space to figure out ways to survive. That is the dream of San Francisco — that you can get away from where you came from and cope, and create something dangerous and desperate and explosive."


When Kimo’s changes hands at the end of September, San Francisco will lose one of the last vestiges of a hustler culture housed on Polk Street since at least the early 1960s.

On a recent night, six gray-haired men sat chatting or reading the paper, relics of Polk Street’s heyday. A young man with a shaved head and black hoodie stood outside the front door and gave a suspicious look to a young blonde woman in bikini straps who breezed in with two friends, laughing, oblivious to him. A sign in front read "No Loitering In Front of These Premises."

The state’s Department of Alcohol Beverage Control mandated the warning, Kimo’s bartender John David told us. He said he thinks that was the result of pressure from the LPN. "Kimo’s is the new whipping boy," he told us. "RendezVous is out, and now it’s our fault that people are on the streets."

Case denies that his group had anything to do with the crackdown on Kimo’s.

A tall man with shaggy brown hair standing on the sidewalk near Kimo’s, who asked to be identified by his porn-actor name, Eric Manchester, complained that a way of life is coming to an end. Manchester said he started hustling on Polk at age 17 after leaving the "redneck, racist town" of Martinsville, Ind., in 10th grade and being stationed in San Diego by the Navy.

"It wasn’t just money for me," Manchester told us. "This was a good place to come and get advice, comfort, support. There are people that need people, and they’re going to take that all away. San Francisco is going down the tubes. All the heterosexual people are moving in. They like the police-state mentality."

Among the new arrivals is the owner of the $6.5 million O’Reilly’s Holy Grail Restaurant that stands just a few doors down Polk Street from Kimo’s. On a recent evening, a musician played soft jazz on a black grand piano, while men in starched pastel button-down shirts stood around on the hickory pecan floor.

Myles O’Reilly opened the restaurant two years ago, when he also transformed a low-rent residential hotel above the space into 14 European-style hotel suites. Neighbors point to the property as a tipping point in Polk’s transformation. But O’Reilly sounded almost defeated when he talked about his "multimillion-dollar jewel in the middle of the desert."

"We are only a couple blocks from City Hall and Union Square," he told us. "But tourism doesn’t come this way."

With the goal of transforming the area, he teamed up with John Malloy, the head of the recently founded Polk Corridor Business Association, who has also chaired the LPN.

One of their projects is on view outside the restaurant and along the street. Colorful banners read: "Welcome to Polk Village … working together to build a cleaner, safer, more beautiful community." The PCBA plans to circulate a petition to officially change the name of Polk Gulch to Polk Village in a few years, but O’Reilly isn’t waiting. He defiantly lists the restaurant’s address as 1233 Polk Village on his building.

That "village" will house a small army if these merchants have their way. "We need foot patrols up and down Polk Street," Malloy, who lives in the neighborhood, told us. "We’re going to get more police even if we have to go out there and hire them ourselves."

O’Reilly took out his cell phone and started showing me photos. "This is defecation on the sidewalk outside," he said, pointing to a smudgy image. "This is condoms on the sidewalk. You see this lovely photograph? That’s a condom in the flowerbed. That’s what my son had to see this morning. And nobody helps."

"There are 1,000 condos being built here," O’Reilly said. "Something has to be done to restrict the number of street people."


The Tenderloin, and to a lesser extent Polk Gulch, risked being swallowed by the expanding downtown financial district and tourist industries in the late 1970s. But in the 1980s, community activism secured a moratorium on the conversion of residential hotel units, required luxury hoteliers to contribute millions of dollars in community mitigations, downzoned dozens of blocks of prime downtown property, and created a nonprofit housing boom.

It is these achievements that new merchants and residents point to when distancing themselves from the word gentrification. LPN cofounder Case told us that because apartments in the area are rent controlled, gentrification is "not possible."

Not so, said Tommi Avicolli Mecca of the Housing Rights Committee. "Look at the Castro," he told us. "It’s full of rent-controlled buildings. All you have to do is evoke the Ellis Act, or you buy out the tenants."

Or look next to the Congregational Church construction on Polk. There stands an almost-completed four-story building whose 32 units are being sold for up to $630,000. A large glossy poster in its window advertises the units’ "open living and dining areas," along with "stainless steel appliances, custom cabinets, [and] granite counters."

Brian Bassinger, cofounder of the AIDS Housing Alliance, told us that in one of the buildings where his organization houses people a few blocks south of Polk Gulch, rent is now $1,700 a month, up from $1,325 just a few years ago.

Gayle Rubin, a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan and a historian of South of Market leather cultures, told us that gay neighborhoods are disappearing across the country as the core of major cities are transformed into high-value areas. This puts pressure on the economic viability of queer neighborhoods, most of which — despite the stereotype of the wealthy gay — have taken root in marginalized, poor neighborhoods.

"Polk Street is just one little battle in the war," Mecca told us. "The Mission was a working-class lesbian area. That whole lesbian culture got lost overnight. The bustling culture of queer artists in the Castro — all gone. The South of Market leather scene — gone. Parts of our culture, the very thing we came to San Francisco for, keep getting wiped out."

Kelly Michaels did develop a certain amount of celebrity as a performer at the famed club Finocchio’s and as a porn star; fans still post photos and gush over her online. And she remains drawn to the Polk, even if her relationship with the neighborhood is deeply ambivalent.

"It’s so evil, so dark, full of drugs and despair," she told us outside Divas. "But this is my home and my family."

"The people left here are going to fight for their home," she said. "Some people have been here forever. Their whole life is here. It’s impossible to get an apartment in other places of this city."

"This is a sanctuary," she said. "They’re taking the sparkle out of San Francisco."

Importing injustice



More than 100 tractor trailers were lined up at 6:30 a.m., inching toward the Port of Oakland’s Terminal 7, waiting for their next load. Against the backdrop of the San Francisco skyline, a mammoth freight ship emblazoned with the name Hyundai glided toward the port, pregnant with multicolor shipping containers.

A driver told the Guardian that he expected to be in line for at least two hours waiting to drop off the empty container attached to his big rig. His 1989 truck lacks air-conditioning, so the windows were rolled down, allowing diesel exhaust to pollute the air he was breathing.

It’s the same scene at many of the port’s other terminals: long lines of ancient trucks slowly snaking toward their destinations, their primarily immigrant drivers performing the essential and thankless task of transporting cheap clothes from Asia to the nation’s big-box retailers or helping to export California’s agricultural goods to Hawaii.

The fourth-busiest container port in the nation, the Port of Oakland is the economic engine of the region, providing thousands of jobs and more than $1 billion in revenue. But activists say that the port system has also led to sweatshoplike conditions for truckers and created a health crisis for the surrounding community.

On their poverty-level wages, truckers are usually able to buy only the oldest, most polluting trucks. Their diesel pollution is a major factor driving asthma rates through the roof in the neighboring, primarily African American neighborhood of West Oakland, where, the American Lung Association says, one in every five kids has asthma.

A new national coalition of labor, environmental, and community activists has advanced a proposal that would make all drivers employees with benefits, radically changing the way work is done on the waterfront and possibly heralding the return of the Teamsters to the ports for the first time in more than 20 years. In the process, the proposal would make the port’s biggest customers responsible for its environmental problems.

The coalition places the blame for the current situation squarely on giant retail shippers such as Wal-Mart and Target and is calling for them to be held accountable for the full environmental and labor costs of the cheap goods they sell — a call the corporations are strenuously resisting. The American Trucking Association, whose members contract directly with the corporation, has threatened a lawsuit if the change is adopted. But port officials have voiced a willingness to seriously consider implementing the proposal.

Having long claimed that the trucking industry is outside its control, the Port of Oakland could embrace the proposal as a means of satisfying community, environmental, political, and business concerns. With impending directives to clean the air coming from Sacramento, trade planned to almost double by 2020, two new Port Commission appointees representing labor and environmental concerns, and a federal antiterrorism tracking plan slated for this fall, the port is poised to play a leadership role that could reverberate up and down the West Coast and across the country.


The Port of Oakland’s estimated 1,500 to 2,500 drivers are a far cry from the middle-class, long-haul Teamsters and the Smokey and the Bandit–<\d>style freewheeling rebels who have long been engrained in the American imagination. Instead, they are at the bottom of the port’s food chain and are the most exploited trucking sector in the country, consisting primarily of recent immigrants struggling to make ends meet.

Dawit Fre, 39, immigrated to Oakland from the small nation of Eritrea two years ago. "I wanted to see a better life," he told us. Fre was a driver in Africa and went to work for the Port of Oakland after his cousin told him people start their trucking careers there. He said he works up to 60 hours a week for one company, making the equivalent of about $8 an hour after expenses.

Fre arrives at work every day no later than 6:30 a.m., waits for dispatches from his company, and spends a minimum of two hours in line for each container he picks up or drops off. He is paid $42 for each load by the company. He doesn’t know how much the trucking companies make but has heard that some get $200 per load. He returns home around 6:30 at night.

"The whole time I’m at the port, I’m thinking about my family," he said. "I got children. The only thing I’m thinking inside the terminal is, how many moves am I going to do? Am I going to do four or five or three or two?"

On a good day he can get four, on a bad day as few as one, depending on the length of the lines and the generosity of the dispatcher. Then there are his expenses. As an independent operator, Fre is solely responsible for a tankful of diesel that costs him up to $250 a pop. DMV registration is $178 a month, and 12 percent of his weekly earnings goes to his boss for insurance on his truck, not to mention annual federal income tax.

He receives no benefits, no overtime pay, and no health care coverage at a time when his wife, a diabetic, is suffering from severe stomach complications. "I’m taking her to Highland Hospital," he told us. "If it’s easy for them to fix, they can do it. But if she has a big problem, they can’t do it."

Fre has his own health problems. "Most of the drivers, we have old trucks," he said. "You don’t have AC, your windows are down, and you get sick in the truck" from the diesel. Fre’s remedy for his persistent coughing and the burning in his throat is several glasses of milk after each day of work.

A 1998 study published in the Journal of Independent Medicine found that truck drivers face a risk of cancer 10 times greater than Occupational Safety and Health Administration–acceptable levels, and a 1990 study published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that truckers face nearly double the average lifetime lung cancer risk.

Fre has little money to invest in his truck, a ragged 1987 model that he said needs $5,000 in repairs. He doesn’t trust it on the freeway, so he’s asked his dispatcher to send him only from pier to pier, not outside the port, further dipping into his earnings. "I came here to see a better life," he said. "When I got here, I found it is different. Here we don’t get paid for the overtime. We don’t get benefits. When I get into the terminal, there is no respect."

His experience is typical of those of port truckers across the country. A study by the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, a labor-affiliated think tank, found that the average Port of Oakland trucker makes as little as $8 an hour after expenses, works 11 hours a day, and spends two and a half hours in line per load. Almost none of the truckers reported receiving benefits on the job, and 66 percent don’t have health insurance.

This is consistent with data from a 2004 survey of port truckers in Los Angeles and Long Beach, conducted by a professor of economics at California State University Long Beach. That report found they had a median income of $25,000 a year after expenses and an average workday of 11.2 hours, with up to 33 percent of their time spent waiting in line.

Port truckers generally drive only the oldest, most polluting trucks because that’s all they can afford. An industry adage is that ports are "the place trucks go to die," a reality that has dire impacts on the surrounding communities.


West Oakland has long been a dumping ground for the Bay Area’s toxic waste. The community has one of the five highest asthma hospitalization rates in California, with an estimated 20 percent of its K–<\d>12 students suffering from the disorder, according to the ALA. Researchers at the University of Southern California have found that children living within a few hundred meters of freeways leading out of ports not only are more likely to suffer from asthma but also actually develop smaller lungs.

Margaret Gordon, a 60-year-old community health activist who has lived just blocks from the Port of Oakland for 15 years, told us that she and four of her grandchildren living with her all suffer from asthma. When one grandchild was born with severe asthma and her own asthma worsened after she moved to West Oakland, Gordon, then a housekeeper, started reading about the causes of asthma and made the connection to the port. Like many in the low-income neighborhood, she cannot afford to move elsewhere in the Bay Area.

Gordon has been fighting for clean air for more than a decade, and in April she was inducted into the Alameda County Women’s Hall of Fame for her work. In 2001, Gordon formed the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, which she now cochairs. The project has released more than half a dozen studies related to air quality. A 2003 report showed that trucks traveling through West Oakland in one day produce the same amount of toxic soot as 127,677 cars, leading to indoor air in some neighborhood homes that is five times more toxic than that in other parts of the city.

Still, Gordon told us that port officials are "only starting paying attention." Last year the California Air Resources Board passed a resolution related to air quality at ports and announced that it was developing a regulatory mechanism. A 2006 CARB report found that truck diesel exhaust accounts for the majority of the estimated 2,400 deaths related to freight transport each year and 70 percent of the state’s air pollution–<\d>related cancer risk. Freight transport will cost California residents $200 billion in health costs over the next 15 years. Most of this is borne by low-income communities of color near freight transport hubs.

The combination of state mandates and local community concerns is starting to spark a change. "They would sit down and talk with us before that, but there was not anything concrete done," Gordon told us. The port is now in the early planning stages of an air-quality-improvement program, working with Gordon and other activists.

That movement is getting vigorous new support from the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, a national partnership of labor, environmental, and community activists organizing at the country’s major container ports: Los Angeles, Long Beach, Miami, Oakland, New York–New Jersey, and Seattle.

"Every one of those ports has the same environmental and labor problems we have in Oakland," Doug Bloch, the coordinator for the coalition in Oakland, told us during a tour of the port’s heavy industrial landscape. Virtually all of its 900 maritime acres are covered by concrete and asphalt, monster cranes that inspired Star Wars‘ Imperial Walkers, and 20-foot steel containers stacked up like Legos behind chain-link fences.

The Port of Oakland has no direct relationship with its truckers at the present. Shippers take price bids from among roughly 100 trucking companies at the port, then contract the work to the independent-contractor truckers. The CCSP says bidding wars lead to poverty wages for truckers, older trucks and more pollution, and a chaotic port full of inefficiencies like long pickup waits.

Under the proposed system, ports would call on their ability as landlords to set standards for the trucking and shipping companies. They would require trucking companies to hire drivers as employees, shifting maintenance costs from the drivers to the companies, which would retrofit or replace all port trucks with more environmentally friendly rigs. The ports would allow only new, cleaner trucks to enter. The companies could then, in theory, pass the costs on to shippers and end users.

If drivers were paid as employees by the hour instead of by the trip, the coalition expects the market would reduce inefficient truck wait times and air pollution.

"When you rent an apartment you sign a lease," Bloch told us. "If you trash the place, you get evicted. Corporations are trashing this community, but they’re not being evicted."

A test case could soon be under way at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two largest in the United States, and the situation is being closely watched by ports and industries across the country. Port commissioners there had hoped by the end of this month to approve the coalition’s program, which they expect to reduce diesel truck emissions by as much as 80 percent over the next five years. But growing opposition and the threat of lawsuits by groups like the California Trucking Association, which represents the owners of truck companies, and the Waterfront Coalition, a consortium of major retailers, led the ports to delay their decision. The commissioners now expect to vote in September after completing an economic impact survey.

At the center of the storm is the fact that as employees, truckers would be able to organize and form a union. As independent contractors, they are barred from doing so because of antitrust laws originally created to oppose vast enterprises that dominated industries. (A further irony is that giant retail steamship companies have experienced incredible consolidation and enjoy a limited antitrust immunity.)

If passed by LA port officials, the plan would be implemented there starting Jan. 1, 2008, and could result in a domino effect at the other, smaller ports across the country. "The industry is fighting like hell in LA," Bloch told us. "They know that if they’re going to have to pay, the party’s over."

Meanwhile, Bloch told us that more than 1,000 truckers have signed a petition asking the Port of Oakland to pass a version of the coalition’s proposal, and it will be presented to the Port Commission, the seven-member body that would eventually vote on the proposal. Spokesperson Libby Schaff told us that the port "agrees with the coalition that the port can and should have a more direct relationship with its truckers" and is "very seriously considering the coalition’s proposal."

Because the proposal "constitutes a major overhaul of the way trucking is done today," Schaff said the port is currently holding stakeholder meetings with residents, truckers, terminal operators, elected officials, the business community, and labor to consider it in the context of a more comprehensive port plan. Schaff said a comprehensive plan could be crafted in less than a year.

The port has not taken a position on granting truckers employee status. It is also looking into other funding mechanisms for a clean-truck program, including money from a pending state bill that would impose a $30 fee on every 20-foot-equivalent unit passing through the Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Oakland port complexes, to be used for improvements in road and rail infrastructure and for clean-air programs.

The legislation, Senate Bill 974, by Alan Lowenthal (D–Long Beach), would generate more than $525 million annually. But it faces tough opposition from some very powerful interests.


Bill Aboudi, president of Oakland’s AB Trucking and a member of the CTA, told us truckers are "treated like second-class citizens," and he believes long lines and trucker asthma are serious problems. But he strongly opposes the coalition’s proposal. Instead, he told us, state regulations like those forthcoming from CARB and other piecemeal reforms are the answer.

"The coalition’s main goal is to unionize the drivers," Aboudi said. He was wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with two American flags and the words "Oakland Trucker." An immigrant from Israel, he has been at the Port of Oakland since 1992. "If these guys choose to be owner-operators, why are you rocking the boat? You can’t be playing with my livelihood just because you want to get union dues," Aboudi said. "Truckers want to own a piece of the American dream. They want to own their own truck."

It’s an appealing image to many. Kevin Leonard, an owner-operator trucker who contracts with Aboudi and others, told us he doesn’t want to give up his independent status. "I have the freedom to work when I want," he said. "I don’t see how the Teamsters can represent me better than I can."

The trucking industry as a whole says the coalition plan will force away trade and drive out small trucking companies, which will have to maintain the trucks and start paying benefits such as health insurance and workers’ compensation.

Yet Assemblymember Sandré Swanson (D–Oakland) brushed aside those arguments. "I’ve been involved in Bay Area politics for more than 30 years," he told us. "I’ve seen these same claims made against farmworkers as they were organizing for better conditions. I’ve seen these arguments made when we were raising the minimum wage. I think the opposite is true. If you have a workforce with a livable wage, it’s a more productive workforce, and I think everyone benefits. Truckers deserve more, and we’re going to do what we can to help them."

Oakland City Council president Ignacio de la Fuente, who drafted and helped pass a minimum-wage law for port employees, told us he supports the right of truckers to unionize but labor and environmental concerns must be balanced with economic growth. "You can’t ignore the fact that you have the port of Oakland competing with other ports," he said. "I support the fact that the Teamsters are going to bargain collectively on a national level. This port competes with other ports, and you cannot be put at a disadvantage."

Bloch says the coalition’s target is the shipping companies, not the trucking companies. "The shippers are hiding behind the trucking companies," he told us. "On the one side there are the giant shipping companies, like Wal-Mart and Target, huge global companies that demand low prices from trucking companies. On the other side are tiny trucking companies, immigrant truckers, and communities of color. Wal-Mart’s slogan is ‘always low prices,’ but ‘always low prices’ means one out of five children in West Oakland with asthma and drivers making $8 an hour who can’t support their families."

Oakland mayor Ron Dellums may be signaling his support for reform with two new appointees to the Port Commission. Even before he took office, Dellums was working to influence the Port Commission; as mayor-elect, he requested that outgoing mayor Jerry Brown hold off on appointing a new nominee so Dellums could appoint someone working on environmental and community impacts. He lost this battle when a majority of the city council voted to appoint Mark McClure, the director of marketing at a business technology company focused on security.

Dellums’s latest appointees, announced earlier this month, are a marked contrast to the business-oriented appointees of the Brown era: Victor Uno, a financial secretary with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and Gordon, the longtime resident and environmental activist in West Oakland.

"The port’s policy has been all about business and not about the people," Gordon told us. "The mayor really wants someone there to talk about health issues. I have never known a mayor to put someone on the commission and one of their engagements is to talk about health." She would also like to see a public participatory-process policy built into the port. "This is about sharing the power," Gordon said. "I don’t think West Oakland residents know they have power." She has "no problem" with truckers unionizing but also wants to find a way for drivers to remain independent contractors if they prefer.

Uno told the Guardian that he is highly supportive of the proposal. "I think that if the whole commission takes the lead of Mayor Dellums that this proposal will be very seriously considered," he said. "I’m very optimistic." Asked if he thought a proposal could succeed without requiring trucking companies to hire truckers as employees, he said, "I do not see how that is possible, given the lack of regulations in the trucking industry. It’s a dog-eat-dog world among independent truckers."


The ports were not always structured as they are now. Before the 1980s the Interstate Commerce Commission regulated trucking, and most truckers at California ports were members of the Teamsters. They had health care, pensions, and workers’ compensation insurance and were paid a middle-class wage.

As part of a national push toward deregulation in the late 1970s, Congress, spurred by President Jimmy Carter, deregulated the trucking industry in 1980. In the following few years, a flood of new trucking companies entered the ports, with shippers choosing between a growing number of companies for each job. As small trucking companies undercut one another in bidding wars, the falling rates translated into declining driver pay, the bankruptcy of Teamster-organized companies, and increasing reliance on independent contractors whom companies could hire without spending money on payroll taxes, health care costs, or other benefits that unions might try to extract.

Trucking expert Michael Belzer, an economics professor at Wayne State University, has shown that long-haul truckers now earn less than half of prederegulation wages and work an average of more than 60 hours a week, while retailers like Wal-Mart have thrived. "The low rates paid to truckers in this global-trade game acts as a subsidy for increasing the amount of trade," Belzer told us. "Pollution and safety hazards are the negative externalities." If all ports on the West Coast required employee drivers, he said, "the market result would be that cost and safety would go up, and pollution would go down."

There have been a handful of Teamsters-related or trucker-led rallies and work stoppages at the Port of Oakland since deregulation, including a technically illegal strike in 2004 protesting the soaring price of diesel fuel, which virtually shut down the port for eight days. Many of the same complaints of today’s port truckers were aired at that time — long waits in lines, poor pay, long hours, and no benefits.

"This business is like the Mafia," Lorenzo Fernandez, 36, said, standing in front of two metal taco trucks glinting in the noon sun, along with about a half dozen other truckers on their lunch break. "They’re doing whatever they want with us, between the [truck companies] and the shippers. There is so much competition between the companies, and they know that we need the job. They know that our kids will go hungry."

Muhammad Khan, 33, said he’s sometimes forced to make up for long wait times by driving dangerously fast on the freeways. "We have our families. We have to take care of them. We all risk our lives because we have to. We don’t make enough money if we don’t make a load," Khan told us.

"We’re all immigrants here," Fernandez said. "We make it possible for the economy to grow up, but they’re stepping on our faces…. We have to work together. Otherwise we are going to be slaves for life."

A sign on a chain-link fence near the taco trucks reads, "Got an old truck? The Port of Oakland can help! Replace your old truck today!" Call the number at the bottom of the sign, and a recorded message issues an invitation to an informational barbecue that took place four months ago. The message explains that the port will provide qualifying owners with up to $40,000 to replace trucks dating from 1993 or before with a 1999-model truck. But Schaff told us, "Due to overwhelming demand, new applicants are currently not being accepted."

Money for the program came from a $9 million settlement of a lawsuit West Oakland residents filed against the Port of Oakland in 1998, alleging that their health was being harmed by port operations. The port says it will replace a total of 80 of the estimated 2,500 port trucks with those funds. When asked if the port had a responsibility to truckers, Schaff said it was "consistent with the port’s commitment to social responsibility…. We’ve done a lot, and we’re going to do more."

But the only specific programs the port could point to were the truck replacement program, a trucker access committee and working group started after the 2004 strike, and new GPS cell phone technology that is being touted as a solution for bottlenecks. Chuck Mack, the Teamsters’ Western Region vice president, isn’t impressed. "They’re a joke," he said of the programs. "Very few independent contractors have utilized them."

The recent purchase of the GPS system particularly irritates Mack. "Here is a quasi-governmental agency supplying services to the trucking companies," he told us. "It’s bizarre that we’re using taxpayer money for this. Any other industry would buy the devices themselves."

"We don’t disagree with using this money" for truck replacement, Mack said, "but what you’re doing is blowing $2 million in taxpayer money. Years down the road they’re going to need a new truck and another million in taxpayer money. For Wal-Mart and Target it’s great because they can have the taxpayer pick up the bill. Without changing the model, it’s just a short-term fix at the expense of the taxpayer."


Beyond the environmental and economic benefits of making truckers employees of the companies, the change also might improve port security. The federal Transportation Worker Identification Credential program, expected to be implemented in the fall, will check the identities of the nation’s 750,000 port employees, 110,000 of whom work as truckers. Under the present system, there is no way to track the independent port truckers.

Employees are easier to track, and they are also better for port security in other ways. Among low-paid port truckers, turnover rate is extremely high, according to the ATA. "We all know that having a stable, well-trained, reliable workforce only leads to more security," Bloch said. "If they’re trained, they can be the eyes and ears of the port."

Well-paid truckers also would lead to safer ports. In a 2005 report, Belzer showed that "a substantial fraction" of independent operators actually loses money each year, resulting in "a high risk of unsafe operations among those earning the least money." The low compensation also "presents a national security risk," his report read, "since those who desperately work to break even might be at risk to engage in activities that put the nation at risk, whether intentionally or unintentionally, just trying to find a way from not going under."

Driving past another long line of trucks idling outside a gate after lunch break, Bloch pointed out one truck. A placard on the back of the rig read, "End sweatshops on wheels."

The current port system "just heaps abuse and abuse on these truck drivers and this community," Bloch told us. "The big businesses like Wal-Mart don’t pay the cost of polluting Oakland. It’s the truck drivers and the community that pay the cost. People pay with their lives."

"You can’t fix the environmental problems without fixing the problems of the driver," he said. "And now you have labor and the community coming together, and that’s powerful."*

Fighting back



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."

Calling in the feds



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. *