EMERYVILLE, Calif. – A lively, noisy crowd welcomed customers of Oaks Corner on Feb. 21 as they gathered for the restaurant and bar’s Lunar New Year celebration. But the crowd outside wasn’t there to celebrate.
Sign-carrying pickets – workers, union and community supporters, whole families – filled the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, chanting boisterously and attracting a stream of loud solidarity honks from vehicles passing on the main thoroughfare, San Pablo Avenue.
Some 65 workers at Oaks Corner have been without a contract for two and a half years, and haven’t had a raise in eight years. In the new contract they are negotiating, they are calling for quality, affordable health care, a wage increase, and management’s fair and respectful treatment of all workers.
The Oaks Corner workers, members of Unite Here Local 2850, proclaimed their demands on printed and hand-lettered placards: “Health and Prosperity for Oaks Corner Families.” “Oaks Corner worker for 17 years, fighting for a fair contract, for better health insurance for all workers.”
Julio Xilog, a cook at the restaurant, told the pickets: “I’m here because we want to talk about a fair contract. We haven’t had that now for almost two and a half years.” At $533 per month, Xilog said, family health coverage is eating up an unsustainable share of Oaks Corner workers’ meager wages.
“We’re here for respect, and for fair contracts and insurance,” he said, to cheers from the pickets. “I know it will take a little while longer, but we’re going to win!”
As they came off their shifts, Oaks Corner workers joined the line, chatting with labor and community supporters including participants from the Alameda Labor Council, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance and many area unions.
Among community supporters was former California Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, whose district included Emeryville.
“No worker should be without a contract for this long. That’s absolutely wrong, and that’s why so many supporters have joined you today,” she told the pickets. “You’ve got city councilmembers from Emeryville and other area cities. You deserve a fair contract, a fair wage and affordable health care. We’re going to be with you until that is achieved.”
Also cheering the Oaks Corner workers were restaurant and fast food workers from other area workplaces.
Fast food worker Guadalupe Salazar told the crowd that she, too, is experiencing “no justice and no respect…. We are suffering the same things: We don’t have health insurance, we are paid very low wages, and on top of everything, they steal our wages. Let’s stand up for our rights!”
The Oaks Corner workers are not the only union restaurant workers in the area waging a struggle for a new contract. Workers at the popular HS Lordships restaurant, nearby on the Berkeley Marina, have been without a contract for nearly five years, and are at risk of losing their health coverage.
Even after workers there offered to give up sick days and vacation time, and accept a new health care plan with a higher deductible and lower benefits, HS Lordships management continues to call for drastic cuts in benefits and making it harder to qualify for coverage.
Restaurant worker leader Rocio Ibarra was suspended without pay for a day for “inappropriate conduct” after she spoke with management in December, in the presence of Berkeley community supporters, about the need for respect and justice in the workplace.
Local 2850 is asking customers of HS Lordships to call on the restaurant to settle a fair contract, and to remove Ibarra’s unfair suspension.
The union is also suggesting that area residents stop in at Oaks Corner for a sandwich, and tell both owner and workers that they support a fair contract.
Photo: Marilyn Bechtel/PW