Emeryville workers take on hotel industry in classic union versus management

EMERYVILLE–Labor-management issues are a hot statewide topic this year, with
voters poised to consider Proposition 75, a business-backed attempt to curb
the unions’ political donations.

But in small but business-savvy Emeryville, local voters face an even more
intense, union-related dispute that will come to a head on Nov. 8: a
traditional pocketbook battle between workers and management. Across the
state, it may be the most dramatic labor-management political clash at the
local level.

The lowest paid workers in Emeryville’s budding hotel industry would be
guaranteed a new minimum wage if voters here approve a controversial local
initiative, Measure C. But whether they need it depends on whom you
ask–hotel management or the local union.

The unfolding battle over Measure C is the latest in a series of recent
labor squabbles in Emeryville. And it sets up an unlikely showdown between
Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 2850, which introduced the
initiative, and veteran Democratic political consultant Larry Tramutola,
whose Oakland-based firm has been contracted to advise the “No on C”

If passed, Measure C would establish annual permitting requirements for
Emeryville hotels with more than 50 guestrooms, conditioned on their
adherence to several specific workplace standards. It would include a
minimum wage of $9 per hour and an average wage of $11 per hour for all
employees “regularly engaged” on hotel premises. Other requirements include
a 90-day employee retention period if the hotel changes management, overtime
pay for workers who clean more than 5,000 square feet of floor space and
paid leave for jury duty.

“There’s a specific problem with the way development happens in Emeryville
when they don’t make sure workers in the businesses they develop there get a
decent standard of living,” said Jim Dupont, president of Local 2850.

The union represents about 3,000 Northern California employees, about 120 of
whom work in Emeryville’s Holiday Inn, the only unionized hotel in the city.
Workers there make at least $10.50 per hour with full medical coverage and a
pension plan, Dupont says, and Local 2850 negotiated for all employees to be
kept on when RIM Hospitality purchased the hotel in January.

The real targets of the initiative are Emeryville’s three non-union
hotels–the Four Points by Sheraton, Woodfin Suites and Courtyard by
Marriott–which Dupont claims pay entry-level housecleaners as little as $7
per hour, with no medical coverage.

Hotel officials strongly deny this, saying all of their employees already
make at least $9 per hour in wages and benefits, which count toward the pay
minimums under the terms of the initiative.

“The new minimum wage and average wage isn’t going to do a single thing for
any hotel employee in Emeryville,” said Courtyard by Marriott general
manager John Henry, who also serves on the city Chamber of Commerce’s
executive committee.

Some employees who collect gratuity are paid only the state-mandated minimum
wage of $6.75 per hour, Henry said, but they make well over $9 per hour with
tips included.

Calls placed to Woodfin Suites general manager De Davies and Four Points by
Sheraton general manager Tanya Smith, both of whom also hold positions in
the Chamber of Commerce, were not returned, but “No on C” campaign
coordinator Rugigana Kavamahanga said, “The hotel managers have told us that
every single hotel employee in Emeryville is making more than $9 per hour.”

Yet Dupont questions his opponents’ readiness, then, to fight the
measure–and to hire Tramutola’s high-profile, and very successful, firm to
do so.

The veteran consultant–who got his start as an organizer for the United Farm
Workers and directed field operations for the California Democratic Party in
1988 and 1992–would seem the last to pick a fight with a union. Yet the firm
“came to the realization that Measure C is flawed,” according to Tramutola
LLC project coordinator Jennifer Root, who is directing consulting efforts
for the initiative.

Root said she did not know if the firm had ever taken up a fight with a
union and referred all further questions about Measure C’s faults to the “No
on C” committee.

Messages left for Tramutola, himself, were not answered.

Opponents of Measure C claim the union is using the initiative to gain a
greater foothold in the local hospitality industry and divert business — and
tax dollars — from Emeryville, whose hotels have prospered, they say, at the
expense of union hotels in surrounding areas.

Woodfin Suites and Courtyard by Marriott, both completed in 2001, were major
development efforts carried out under the guidance of Emeryville’s
Redevelopment Agency, the city council-staffed body that oversees work on
the 95 percent of city land zoned for redevelopment. Many city leaders —
including the long list of city council, school board and chamber of
commerce officials who have spoken out against Measure C — praise the
businesses the agency has attracted for transforming Emeryville into a
tech-job and retail hub, and for generating almost $7 million yearly in tax
revenue for the city.

“We’re heavily dependent on our businesses and want to make sure it remains
fruitful and prosperous to work and do business here,” Chamber of Commerce
chair Jason Crouch said.

But Dupont says the city’s policies neglect to take into account workers —
especially those laboring outside of Emeryville.

“Emeryville takes this attitude that somehow what they do doesn’t affect
anyone else in area,” Dupont said. “By allowing these hotels to exist, they
pull down everybody’s wages.”

Apart from concerns over the initiative’s intentions, opponents also
question how the city could efficiently enforce it. In his impartial
analysis of Measure C, City Attorney Michael Biddle states that legal
challenges to the ordinance would likely be filed “due to vagueness,
over-breadth and preemption …”

Yet Dupont says that past wage ordinances backed by Local 2850 have
withstood legal challenge, namely a 2000 initiative that provided a wage
floor for city employees at the Berkeley Marina.

Labor activists have had less success in Emeryville.

Last year, the Oakland-based East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy
spearheaded an unsuccessful drive to keep Pixar Animation Studios —
Emeryville’s second largest employer — from expanding its campus without
pledging to provide job opportunities for Emeryville residents and assist in
affordable housing construction. Voters ultimately approved two referendum
measures in November that allowed the movie giant to nearly double its plot
on Park Avenue, directly across the street from City Hall.

Then, as now, the dispute prompted many in Emeryville to complain that
“outside interests” were conspiring against their city.

But such rhetoric smacks of hypocrisy to Dupont, who helped gather the 700
signatures needed from Emeryville residents to get Measure C on the ballot.
“Does Larry Tramutola live there?” he asked. “Does Woodfin base its
corporate headquarters in Emeryville?”

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