Trouble In Paradise
Interrogated, surveilled, and told to keep quiet, many Asilomar workers say it's time to join a union.
Thursday, October 28, 1999
When he was called on the carpet for wearing a union button at work, Maximino Hernandez knew it was time for him to move on.
Financially speaking, quitting his $7.54-an-hour gig at the Asilomar Conference Grounds and taking a job at Pebble Beach that pays a third more was a wise move. Leaving Asilomar, it seems, might have made even more sense on a personal level.
"They always kept an eye on me," says Hernandez, who worked in Asilomar''s dining room for six years. "The supervisors were always watching me." One day, after Hernandez was chatting with a new employee, managers promised the staffer a better job evaluation if she stayed clear of him.
Keeping an eye on workers is just the start of it. Since Asilomar workers began talking with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Union two years ago, they''ve also been spied upon and told not to discuss union matters at work--lest they might find themselves out of work.
These and other practices by Asilomar management have drawn unfair labor charges from the National Labor Relations Board. Despite managers'' assertion in a letter to workers that they have "never infringed on your rights to support the union," the NLRB found evidence that Asilomar "interfered with, coerced and restrained its employees" from exercising their rights to organize.
"This is a dictatorship," says HERE organizer Ivana Krajcinovic. "We want a fair process, but there is a lot of intimidation."
Asilomar General Manager Pam Fisher said supervisors are not allowed to intimidate workers. "It is totally against the law to do that," Fisher said, without addressing specific cases cited by her employees. "We don''t condone that behavior."
For about two years now, HERE''s Local 483 has been trying to unionize 185 Asilomar staffers, including housekeepers, food and beverage workers, groundskeepers, maintenance workers, front-desk attendants, and (like Hernandez) dining-room workers. There''s nothing unusual about their demands--higher wages, better health-care benefits, and lighter work loads. Unions almost always ask for improvements in these areas. But with workers starting as low as $6.25 an hour, it''s hard to write off their demands as run-of-the-mill.
The impasse, as is often the case in labor standoffs, is largely a procedural one.
HERE wants to use a streamlined process for workers to cast their ballots for or against the union, one that would sidestep weeks or perhaps months of bureaucratic red tape common to NLRB-sanctioned elections. About two-thirds of Asilomar workers have signed petitions supporting the process. Asilomar managers, however, don''t want any part of the accelerated voting system, which would take away their--and workers''--ability to stall the process by filing complaints with federal overseers.
"They don''t want to start a precedent," says HERE''s Krajcinovic.
Since 1997 the world-renowned, state-owned retreat on Pacific Grove''s oceanfront has been managed by a corporation called Delaware North Companies of Buffalo, N.Y. The $2.1 billion-a-year, multinational corporation (whose chairperson owns the Boston Bruins hockey team) has numerous labor contracts with HERE throughout the country, including a nationwide agreement with employees of the company''s airport-concession division. "They''ve been great friends of ours," company spokesperson Brenda Follmer said of HERE.
Delaware North, however, has resisted HERE''s efforts to use the streamlined unionization format--particular in the company''s rapidly growing parks division, which, beyond Asilomar, includes the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, and Sequoia and Yosemite national parks.
Delaware North''s resistance, though predictable on the surface, is surprising when considering that a large percentage of the company''s workers--including a vast majority of those working at airport concessions--are already unionized. Asilomar''s Fisher says it comes down to confidentiality. In NLRB-sponsored elections, voting is anonymous. In the streamlined system, however, both management and the union can see how individual workers voted.
Even by prevailing standards, the Asilomar labor battle has been an ugly one. Guests, who spend up to $240 a night to unwind at the beachfront spread, have been confronted by chanting, sign-carrying workers protesting in front of the grounds and outside the plate-glass-windowed dining hall. A propaganda war, of sorts, is being waged, as workers and managers distribute dueling fliers to visitors.
"I think it''s hilarious," says Krajcinovic. "First, you have to walk through a picket line. Then a supervisor gives you a flier. You''re here for a quiet retreat!"
Less funny is how Asilomar managers sit down new employees and present a video that dramatizes overbearing union organizers trying to coax new workers into signing up. Employees are shown how to slough off union organizers who knock on their doors and approach them in their driveways. "They prey on the weaker people," says Krajcinovic, who, true to the video, has been dissed by several new employees.
An end to the struggle isn''t in sight. Just last week, HERE--in a complaint to the NLRB--charged management with an unfair labor practice for "bribing" workers with higher tips. Managers extended the offer despite a pledge made in the course of settling an earlier NLRB complaint not to increase benefits to discourage workers from joining the union.
For now, as the tug-of-war continues, Maximino Hernandez and his wife share a three-bedroom house near the Monterey-Seaside border with daughter Rosario (an Asilomar front-desk worker and MPC nursing student), her husband Ramil (an Asilomar dining-room worker), and a boarder, who also works at Asilomar.
It''s not easy keeping it all together on less than $10 an hour--especially in a confrontational work environment. "Inside, we''re really upset," Rosario says. "But our job is to serve guests. We have to get a smile out of somewhere."