Christmas at Woodfin Suites 

When Woodfin Suites fired its immigrant workers, was it obeying the law or dodging a living-wage ordinance?

On a rainy December day in Emeryville, organizers distributed umbrellas to a small crowd chanting and yelling at cars in front of the Woodfin Suites Hotel. Half the picketers were church people, community activists, or union folks — the sort who turn out for many demonstrations, rain or shine. The other half had just gotten off work. Some held animated discussions as they walked up and down the wet sidewalk in their gray uniforms. But most just looked tired at the end of another long day.

Under one umbrella, Luz Dominguez, a Mexican woman in her forties, huddled against another housekeeper from the towering hotel looming above them. Dominguez and her colleagues were already dreading the next day, when they'd once again put on their uniforms and make the trek to Emeryville to clean hotel rooms. "I feel really exhausted at the end of my shift," she said with a sigh. "When I get home, I have no energy for my family. All I do is worry about what the next day's work will be like — if the rooms will be the same, or even more dirty."

You wouldn't think anyone would want to keep a job that leaves her feeling that drained, but Dominguez and twenty co-workers have been fighting for exactly that all fall and winter. Their pre-Christmas picket line was just their latest effort to keep the hotel from firing them. Their jobs are worth keeping partly because of a new ordinance intended to lighten the workload that leaves them exhausted each day. But just as the law seemed to promise the workers more time and money for themselves and their families, the women have found themselves at the center of a national firestorm over immigration.

On December 15, a few days after the picket line, hotel managers sent Dominguez and her friends home for good. The workers were just 21 of the thousands of people fired, and in some cases deported, in the Bush administration's fall offensive to root undocumented workers out of workplaces. A November action targeted workers at the largest industrial laundry in the United States. In December raids at six Swift meatpacking plants, more than 1,300 laborers were detained and deported.

The firings and deportations did not directly affect most of the twelve million people now living in the United States without immigration papers. But they did make a political point. In a Washington press conference, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters that such enforcement efforts highlight the need for "stronger border security, effective interior enforcement, and a temporary-worker program.'' He took the opportunity to promote the president's proposed guest-worker program, which stalled in Congress last year.

But labor and immigrant-rights activists see another motive. They say the firings targeted workplaces where people were organizing unions, trying to enforce labor-protection laws, fighting to improve wages or benefits, or otherwise standing up for their rights.

Emeryville's Woodfin Suites has become a poster child for these accusations.

In November 2005, Emeryville voters passed a worker-protection ordinance known as Measure C. The measure was the brainchild of the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, a worker advocacy group that represents a new kind of thinking in labor. EBASE, as it is known, brings together union and community activists in a permanent coalition. Its young organizers are labor's shock troops, turning out for demonstrations, exposing worker abuse, and campaigning for living wages throughout the East Bay.

It was no accident that the group set its sights on Emeryville, a small town originally carved out as a tax-free haven for big factory owners. Those plants are long gone, and in their wake, the city at the foot of the Bay Bridge toll plaza has reinvented itself as a home for hotels, malls, and loft apartments — businesses that all rely upon immigrant labor.

"The old guard was very business-friendly and gave the developers whatever they wanted," said city council member and lawyer John Fricke, who sees himself as part of the new Emeryville. "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 toward workers and immigrants."

EBASE organizers looked at these new demographics and predicted that Emeryville would take to heart the plight of its primarily immigrant hotel workers. They collected signatures for a living-wage ordinance that would mandate a $9 hourly minimum, and an $11 average, in each of Emeryville's four hotels. Any housekeeper required to clean more than five thousand square feet in an eight-hour shift would earn time and a half.

The city's hotels — Holiday Inn, Marriott Courtyard, Sheraton Four Points, and Woodfin Suites — all opposed the ordinance. Under the name of the Committee to Keep Tax Dollars in Emeryville, they spent $115,610 for an election in which only 2,296 people voted. The committee spent $110 for each "no" vote cast, but the ordinance prevailed 1,245 to 1,051. Afterward, the hotels tried but failed to prevent the measure's implementation with a court challenge.

Over the following spring and summer, EBASE organizers met with workers at the four hotels and explained the law's new requirements. Marcela Melquiades, who had been cleaning rooms at Woodfin Suites for two years, recalled what life was like before Measure C. "The workload was very heavy," she said. "I'd be really tired at the end of the shift. I'd go to the bathroom right away and pour hot water on my hands. I still had to go home, make dinner for the kids, clean the house, get my uniform ready for the next day, get up early in the morning. It was exhausting."


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