Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Workers v. Woodfin Suites update

The struggle of workers at Emeryville's Woodfin Suites Hotel for a living wage and a measure of respect has taken some wild twists and turns in the last few days. I've written about this previously here, here, and here.

Like much of the "hospitality industry" this hotel keeps up its profit margin up by paying low wages to immigrant workers to do the dirty stuff. The city of Emeryville, collectively, said "enough already," in 2005, and passed a living wage ordinance. The hotel unsuccessfully contested the law in court; workers brought a class action lawsuit for back pay. All of a sudden, the hotel began to question the workers' immigration status, citing problems with their Social Security numbers.

In December the Woodfin laid off 21 housekeepers and other workers claiming irregularities in their documents, but a judge granted an injunction that sent them back to their jobs while their lawsuit was pending. On April 27 the hotel fired 12 workers; 38 supporters including a state Assemblyperson and local elected officials were arrested in a protest of the firings on May 3.

New developments in the last few day:
  • According to Joseph Plaster in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, it was no accident that immigration authorities became interested in the legal status of the Woodfin workers. It turns out that the office of U.S. Representative Brian Bilbray (he's the Republican lobbyist who won convicted felon Duke Cunningham's old Congressional seat) went to bat for the hotel with the head of the Immigration and Customs Inspection (ICE). Woodfin Suites president Samuel Hardage lives in Bilbray's San Diego district and donated $4200 to Bilbray in 2006. He's also a well connected conservative donor who raised over $100,000 for George W. Longstanding ICE policies say the agency should not intervene in workplaces where a labor dispute is going on, though it is certainly no surprise that under Bush the agency violates its own rules for a friend.
  • Meanwhile today the city of Emeryville released the result of its own investigation into whether Woodfin had complied with the local living wage law. The city had held up issuing an operating permit for the hotel pending this investigation. Emeryville will now issue the permit, but only when Woodfin pays back-wages to 47 housekeepers, penalties to the city for noncompliance and enforcement, and a permit fee. The penalties would amount to some $32,000. This is getting costly for Woodfin -- and besides the penalties, they must also be running up some huge legal bills.
Do these developments mean the fight is over? Not by a long shot. Though Emeryville voters played by the rules and set fair labor standards for their town, a well-connected individual and his greedy corporation are determined to find a way to evade or reshape the rules in their favor. Immigrant workers with the grit and determination to stand up for their rights weren't in their plan. I expect there will be more

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