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Workers Fight For Economic Equity
Enough is enough. Give the workers their money and jobs.
Back home in Mexico, Ana Garcia was an executive secretary. But here, the only job she could find was as a housekeeper at Emeryville's Woodfin Suites Hotel.
It wasn't easy. She struggled to clean up to 17 apartment-sized suites each day, lifting heavy mattresses under constant time pressure. The wages barely allowed her to support her three young children. If workers complained, managers dished out arbitrary punishments, such as writing them up for minor issues.
In response to stories such as Garcia's, Emeryville voters took action to improve life in that city's big hotels. In November 2005, they approved Measure C, a hospitality-industry living-wage ordinance. Sponsored by the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, the law guaranteed workers a living wage and reasonable workload limits.
The Woodfin bitterly opposed the living wage and refused to comply. But Garcia and her co-workers, with support from EBASE, began fighting to get their employer to follow the law. Initially, the workers succeeded. Last fall, after the workers testified before the Emeryville City Council about violations of the living-wage law, the Woodfin reduced workloads from 16 to 10 suites a day - a major victory for the exhausted housekeepers.
But just as things began to improve, Garcia and most of her fellow housekeepers found their jobs on the line. Only three weeks after the workers spoke out, management suddenly gave most of the workers notices saying that they couldn't continue to work unless they produced new immigration papers. Some workers had been there since the hotel opened, five or six years. The hotel had never questioned their immigration status until they started to organize. The hotel also refused to pay the workers the back wages it owed them, about $10,000 per worker under Measure C's overtime provision. The workers took matters into their own hands by filing a class-action lawsuit with the Alameda County Superior Court and complaints with the city of Emeryville to collect their back pay.
The Woodfin claims it is obligated to fire the workers because they have alleged problems with their Social Security numbers, but the hotel went on record before the Emeryville City Council and said it had only received "no match" letters from the Social Security Administration. The Woodfin complied with federal law when it first hired the workers years ago and verified their worth authorization then. SSA no-match letters are not an indication of immigration status and clearly state: "You should not use this letter to take any adverse action against an employee."
For the next seven months, Garcia and her co-workers struggled to save their jobs -- dragging sleepy children to early-morning picket lines and standing up to intimidation from their supervisors. "We're not criminals, or thieves or murderers," Garcia told an investigator. "We're hard-working people."
The East Bay community began to take notice of the workers' courage and the hotel's attempts to get rid of them. Action by Alameda County Superior Court and the Emeryville City Council kept the workers on the job while the city began investigating their complaints. Since December, hundreds of supporters -- including elected officials, faith leaders and Emeryville residents -- have walked the picket line in front of the hotel and pledged to boycott until workers are treated fairly
But on April 27, the Woodfin finally fired 12 housekeepers -- in violation of city law. Once more, Garcia and her children urged Emeryville's City Council to stand up for them. "I want my mom to have her job back, and also have respect," said 11-year-old Mayra.
The council agreed with Mayra. Even Councilmember Dick Kassis -- who describes himself as "pro-business" and who opposed Measure C during the election -- called the Woodfin's behavior "morally reprehensible." But the workers are tired of waiting for the city to make good on this promise.
In the past year, Woodfin has gone to great lengths to avoid accountability to its workers and local law. It has:
-- Sued the City of Emeryville twice seeking to overturn the city's living-wage law, Measure C;
-- Refused for nearly a year to comply with Measure C;
-- Denied workers more than $200,000 in back pay owed to them under Measure C;
-- Tried to fire workers 10 days before Christmas, against the City Council's urgings, but were prevented from doing so by a court order;
-- Filed a lawsuit against Emeryville City Councilman John Fricke, who sought dialogue with hotel management;
-- Refused to cooperate with the city's investigation of workers' complaints, failing to provide any payroll records to refute the workers' claims for back wages;
-- Evicted a longtime hotel resident and her family because they supported the workers; and
-- Has fired the workers in violation of city law.
The workers' requests are simple. They want their money and their jobs. Until then, Garcia, her co-workers and their supporters will boycott the hotel.
Brooke Anderson is organizing director and Sarah Norr is living- wage organizer for the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, an alliance of community organizations, labor unions and faith-based organizations.
© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle