Hotel Faces Boycott
Union ups threat at Fremont Street Travelodge.
Thursday, November 25, 2004
Tears pour down Juana Enriquez’s cheeks as she pleads her case for health insurance. Speaking through a megaphone on a sidewalk on Monterey’s North Fremont Street, in front of the Travelodge motel near the Monterey County Fairgrounds, Enriquez, 38, stands surrounded by about 70 fellow union workers—teachers, service employees and grocery clerks, but mostly hotel housekeepers and laundresses from the other Peninsula hotels like the Highlands, the Hyatt and the Hilton.
Enriquez has worked for the Travelodge for 13 years. She lives in Seaside and on some nights, she works as a caregiver in Pacific Grove, helping elderly clients through the night, bathing them, and so on. But the man she works for at the hotel has made what the union calls a “last and best” offer in negotiations with Enriquez’s union. They say he has not renewed the employment contract for Enriquez and 12 other “backhouse” workers. Her wage is frozen at $8.84 an hour and her pension is stalled. Her health insurance has ended.
Among the 13 workers there are 19 children who, she says, now no longer have health insurance. She alternates between English and Spanish as she relays indignities that her audience knows all too well. She tells the crowd about her woes, but they already know and she starts crying.
“We are human beings,” she says weeping. “We need insurance.”
The demonstration staged in the gathering darkness at the end of the work day, Nov. 18, was an escalation of tactics against the Travelodge owner, Kilsoo Seo. Union workers have been picketing the hotel sporadically since the end of July when the negotiations broke off with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 483. The union has been successful getting two-year contracts with 14 other hotels on the Peninsula, but the Travelodge is the last holdout. So last week Enriquez and her fellow workers voted to endorse a boycott of the hotel. It’s a tactic just short of a strike, but they and theunion organizers feel they need to push harder.
Seo, contacted over the weekend at his video store in Bethel, Alaska, says he bought the hotel after Sept. 11, 2001 and business has been down ever since. At first he referred comments to a lawyer but then spoke.
“I already showed the union rep I didn’t make money last year. I lost $100,000. I showed them proof I lost money,” he says.
That may be so, but one thing the union makes a big deal about is that Seo bought an expensive home in Seaside Highlands, but at the same time won’t pay into workers’ health insurance. Seo says he plans to move to Monterey and run the hotel himself.
“Everybody has a home,” he says. “What’s the big deal? I am not a big corporation like Hilton or Marriott. These union members have everything. I cannot afford that.”
Julius deVera, lead union organizer, says here will now do “outreach” to sympathetic organizations that might have some influence. He says HERE will approach the Monterey Jazz Festival, Naval Postgraduate School, and officials at the Fairgrounds and ask them to steer their visitors to other hotels.
“It’s a risk,” deVera says of Enriquez and her co-workers. “They’ll probably lose some hours but they feel it’s the right thing to do.”
DeVera, who called Seo a “greedy bastard” during the boycott demonstration, says the union will also be seeking support from various political groups, like the local chapter of the Democratic Party.
“He says he’s been losing money, but at the same time he’s just bought a house,” deVera says. “So we have a really tough time believing him.”
Paul Johnston of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council says that although the boycott of one hotel in Monterey might seem like a small skirmish, there are larger strategic struggles underway that will soon become more apparent. A shadow of its former self, American labor unions are re-tooling, he says, to become a more potent force in large-scale politics. A national meeting of the AFL-CIO this spring promises to reveal what he says is an attempt at consolidating union power.
“It’s extremely difficult,” he says. “What’s happening with labor right now is huge controversy and upheaval with what type of strategy we need to employ to have an impact.”
The Monterey Bay Central Labor Council represents 30,000 union workers in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. Although there are notable absences in membership from non-AFL-CIO-affiliated unions like the California Teachers Association and California Nurses Association, the council has the ability to coordinate the efforts of several different labor organizations.
In December, Johnston says, a campaign to support Safeway workers will resume. Already the labor council has gathered 10,000 signatures from local shoppers who say they will support a boycott of stores in northern California if ongoing contract negotiations break down. Safeway and other grocery stores in southern California were struck last year over health care benefits.
“Workers today too often face corporations that are so big that an effort to apply pressure in one area has little effect,” Johnston says. “It’s a deep divide between the haves and the have-nots, and here in Monterey County it’s one of the most dramatic, because we have the highest concentration of affluence on the Monterey Peninsula, and the highest concentration of poverty in the Salinas Valley.”
The fight over the Travelodge has also been political. During the election season, Seaside candidates and council members Ralph Rubio, Tom Mancini and Steve Bloomer participated in the demonstrations. Rubio, who is a field representative for the local carpenters’ union, was elected mayor. Like San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who allied himself with striking hotel workers in that city, Rubio says he supports the Travelodge boycott.
“It’s unfortunate that a historically good community partner would decide they can no longer support the values that are so important to the citizens of Seaside and the greater Peninsula,” Rubio says.
In support of the action, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sent Seo a resolution of support for the 13 workers urging a return to the negotiating table.
Bill Melendez, of LULAC, spoke at the rally.
“Your fight is my fight,” he told the crowd. “We are really concerned for the workers. We are really concerned because we know fully how important it is to have health insurance, and we know that without this type of demonstration it will be very hard to acquire it…Don’t give up this fight. Your fight is my fight.”
Later, Melendez says he was speaking for himself and not representing LULAC.
Melendez says the recent re-election of President Bush and the failure of state proposition to mandate health insurance from large employers has him urging for greater resolve.“With the leaning of our country to the right, workers are going to have to strengthen their position,” he says. “You can’t sit down and talk turkey with someone who doesn’t want to listen.”
Even though there are only 13 workers involved, Melendez says, they cannot be overlooked.
“What you do to the least among us, you do to me,” he said, quoting from the New Testament.