by Juliana Birnbaum Fox
In the biggest protest in Emeryville history, over 300 union members, students, musicians, community activists, faith leaders, elected officials and local residents rallied for immigrant and workers’ rights at the City Hall last Tuesday, April 10.
Participants pushed for the Emeryville City Council to support Woodfin Suites workers in their demand that their employer comply with the local living wage law (Measure C). They also asked that the city hold the hotel management accountable for its retaliation against its immigrant workers and for the $200,000 in back wages owed.
The rally was followed by an energetic march down 40th Street to raise awareness about the plight of the Woodfin workers and the boycott of the hotel.
“We might lose our jobs in the next 10 days,” said Luz Domínguez, a Woodfin housekeeper.
“We can’t continue living from day to day without knowing that our future is secure. We are going to keep boycotting the Woodfin until the hotel treats us with respect by guaranteeing our jobs and paying us the wages we are owed.”
Emeryville voters passed Measure C in November 2005, which raised wages and set limits to the amount of work that could be asked of employees within a given period of time.
City council member and lawyer John Fricke supported Measure C. He sees himself as part of Emeryville’s new wave.
“The old guard was very business-friendly, and gave the developers whatever they wanted,” he explains. “But the people who came to live in the new lofts and apartments are young people priced out of San Francisco. They have a pretty supportive attitude towards workers and immigrants.”
The week before Christmas last year, after protests pressuring Woodfin to adhere to Measure C, the hotel gave notice to 21 workers, claiming Social Security number mismatches. The following week, the Alameda County Superior Court granted a temporary restraining order preventing the Woodfin Suites from firing the workers until their claims were investigated.
The employees returned to work after the ruling, but Sarah Noor of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy said the workers fear the hotel will fire them after the temporary order expires on April 20.
“I’m just living from one day to the next on what I make,” said Marcela Melquiades, a worker at the hotel. “I don’t know what I’d do if I lost my job. Even though I’m back to work, I’m always worried about the next day. I’m just living with anxiety, all the time.”
Woodfin general manager Hugh MacIntosh said today that the hotel probably will indeed fire the 21 workers, but he said the reason is that they don’t have legitimate Social Security numbers, not retaliation.
“We’ve offered to give them four hours paid time off to sort out the issues with their Social Security numbers,” MacIntosh said. “They haven’t gotten their documentation sorted out.”
However, the workers say the reason is another.
“The reason the hotel was saying this was because we were demanding our rights,” stated Dominguez.
Over the past months, a boycott committee consisting of workers, Emeryville residents, faith leaders and community supporters has visited many locally-based corporations that use the Woodfin to tell them about the workers’ boycott and urge them to stop patronizing the hotel until it meets the workers’ demands. Protests have also been held at the hotel once or twice a week since the issue began.
Norr said she believes Woodfin is conveniently using the documentation issue as a cover, and the real reason for the possible firings is retaliation. Most of the undocumented employees have worked at the hotel for many years, she added, and their Social Security status wasn’t an issue for management until the workers demanded that the hotel comply with the living wage ordinance.