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Mixed Results for Local Labor Struggles in 2006

By Judith Scherr
Friday January 05, 2007

While several local long-term labor disputes ended happily for workers in 2006—Berkeley Honda, Alta Bates/Summit and Claremont Resort & Spa employees signed contracts after protracted struggles—workers at the Shattuck Cinema, Doubletree Hotel, UC Berkeley and the Woodfin Suite Hotel will continue to fight for better pay, benefits and working conditions in 2007. 


Win at Honda  

It takes a community to build a labor movement, according to Harry Brill, retired University of Massachusetts sociology professor and one of the founders of the Berkeley Labor and Community Coalition. 

The community-worker coalition formed as the Berkeley Honda Labor and Community Coalition, but dropped Honda from its name after the 10-month struggle ended with a win for the workers, members of Machinist Local 1546 and Teamster Local 78. 

Trouble began in June 2005 when new owners refused to rehire about half the Honda workforce and downgraded health insurance and pensions.  

Outraged, customers joined workers, activists like Brill, members of St. Joseph the Worker Church’s Social Justice Committee, the East Bay Labor Committee for Peace & Justice, public officials and others for daily pickets and twice-weekly rallies. The machinists brought in a 15-foot inflatable rat that became a community icon over the months it took for the workers to win back their jobs and benefits.  

Most effective, said Brill in an interview last week, was the community-organized boycott and its support by a unanimous City Council. “We reduced business on the service end by 70 percent,” Brill said, adding that the union would have been unable to sustain the effort on its own.  

Victory was declared in April with the community members ending the boycott and encouraging Berkeley Honda patronage. 


Claremont Win 

Another victory had been feted by workers and community members the month before the Honda worker’s victory. The dispute at the Claremont Resort & Spa, the majestic 92-year hotel that straddles the Oakland-Berkeley border, spanned more than four years and affected some 400 hospitality workers. Unionized food-service and hotel employees were working without a contract and spa workers were fighting for the right to organize. 

As with the Honda dealership, sustained outside support was key. “There was a lot of community support and political support,” Wei-Ling Huber, president of Unite HERE, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 2850, told the Daily Planet last week. 

Over the years, picketers included City Councilmembers Max Anderson, Dona Spring, Maudelle Shirek, Kriss Worthington, Mayor Tom Bates and former Mayor Shirley Dean. 

“It was an enormous victory for our union,” Huber said, noting negotiated phased-in raises will eventually bring worker pay up to the area union standard. A key element of the union victory was the unionization of about 130 spa workers. 

One of the difficulties in negotiations was getting hotel management to provide health benefits for employees—particularly spa workers—working less than a 40-hour week. These employees “do not work 40 hours, but they are expected to be available,” Huber said. 


Doubletree Hotel Transition 

Local 2850 is also involved in labor issues at the Doubletree Hotel, bought last year from Boykin Lodging by the Canadian-based Westmont Hospitality Group, which took over running the 378-room hotel at the Berkeley Marina in September. 

First unionized six years ago after a year-long struggle that included a City Council-initiated boycott, Doubletree workers had been without a contract since January 2006. When Westmont took over, workers negotiated what Huber calls a “transition contract,” with the new owners. Workers got raises retroactive to January, but “we continue to have challenges in this industry,” Huber said.  

The union is now in negotiations with the new owners for a multi-year contract. Sticking points are raises, health benefits and an improved grievance process. The hotel and workers will be back at the bargaining table this month. 

“We’re thinking of doing public actions if we don’t get the issues resolved,” Huber said. 


Shattuck Cinema In Negotiations 

While the hospitality industry becomes increasingly unionized, a movie-theater union is rare. In June, however, workers at the Shattuck Cinema, one of 56 Landmark Theaters, voted overwhelmingly to establish a union. One other Landmark Theater —the one in Cambridge, Mass.—is unionized. 

But neither has successfully negotiated labor contracts. 

“It’s a slow and tedious process,” said Hargitt Gill, organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the Wobblies. 

Soon after the union was voted in, the company voluntarily raised wages. Eligibility for partially-employer-paid benefits continues to be an issue, as is the question of the theater becoming a union shop, where every worker must belong to the union.  

If negotiations are not successful, “we will be increasing the pressure, asking for the community to help us put more pressure on Landmark,” Gill said. 


Woodfin Workers Want Living Wage 

Emeryville’s Woodfin Suite Hotel is not unionized, but the workers there have wage and work guarantees under that city’s Measure C, a limited living wage ordinance that applies only to hotel workers. 

The Berkeley Labor and Community Coalition, Unite HERE 2850, the Alameda County Central Labor Committee and a number of other unions and organizations have joined the organizing efforts of the Oakland-based nonprofit, East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, to support the workers’ demand that the hotel implement Measure C, which, among other requirements, says that housekeepers must be paid one and one-half times their regular salary for each day they clean in excess of 5,000 square feet. (While the hotel says it is complying with the measure, the organizers say the hotel is not in compliance.) 

On Dec. 15 hotel management told some 24 workers there were problems with their Social Security numbers, distributed checks for two weeks advance pay, and told the workers they should fix the Social Security problem within two weeks, or not return to work at all. 

While hotel management said it was being generous by giving workers time to regularize their paper work, workers argued that the company was harassing them for demanding implementation of Measure C. 

The courts agreed that the workers should not be dismissed. On Dec. 21 Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sabraw granted workers a temporary restraining order, requiring the hotel to either keep employees on paid administrative leave or put them back to work. The order is in effect until Jan. 23. 


University Custodians Call for Equity 

UC Berkeley custodians, members of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3299, are also facing unresolved labor issues 

According to the union, a five-year UC Berkeley janitor earns about $12 an hour, while custodians working for five years at the nearby Peralta Community Colleges get $18.30 per hour.  

Speaking to the Daily Planet last week, AFSCME Communications Director William Schlitz pointed to the “executive pay scandal,” where it was discovered last year that the university was paying some of its administrators hundreds of thousands of dollars above their salary.  

“That’s a slap in the face for the custodians,” Schlitz said, promising to raise the level of public awareness of the custodian pay question. “2006 is just the start,” he said. 


Alta Bates/Summit Signs Contract 

Over at Alta Bates/Summit Hospital, part of Sutter Health, SEIU United Healthcare West hospital workers were victorious in February after working for two years without a contract. 

At issue was appropriate staffing levels and training, according to SEIU UHW Vice President John Borsos.  

During the protracted negotiations Alta Bates workers staged a walkout, but much of the pressure was put on Sutter to settle through a nine-week strike that ended in November 2005 at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, also a Sutter Health hospital. 


City Gets Involved 

Looking to the future, the council passed a resolution in June, calling on Berkeley Bowl management to support the workers’ right to organize at the to-be-built West Berkeley Bowl.  

Councilmember Dona Spring said last week she hopes the council will pass a similar resolution to support unionizing the Trader Joe’s, which just got permits to build at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and University Avenue. None of the more-than-200 Trader Joe’s stores are currently unionized. 

The City Council has gotten involved in workplace issues because of the “fundamental issue of the quality of life in the city,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington, often among picketers or speakers at labor rallies. 

Sociologist Brill summed it up: “Part of building a democratic society is building a democratic workplace,” he said.