GLBT leaders side with labor union to boycott restaurants owned by GLBT ally

Reposted from http://www.gaylesbiantimes.com Local government officials and GLBT activists are siding with UNITE HERE Local 30’s boycott of Old Town San Diego Historic Park’s restaurants Fiesta de Reyes and Barra Barra, owned by GLBT ally Chuck Ross, who says the GLBT community is turning against him.

“We talk a lot about coalition building and this is how it’s done. When the LGBT community stands in solidarity with working people for living wages and health benefits and the union stands in solidarity with us for marriage equality, then both of our movements are much stronger,” said former City Council candidate Stephen Whitburn. Ross spokesperson Paul O’Sullivan, however, contends that “They [Local 30] are asking the LGBT community to fight its own supporters.”

UNITE HERE Local 30, which worked with marriage-equality organizations on the Manchester Hyatt boycott, announced its boycott of the two Old Town restaurants on April 29 because Chuck Ross and Delaware North Companies, the latter of which had been concessionaire of the two restaurants since 2005, contracted to lay off all past employees and reopen the establishments under Ross as non-union.

“The issue here is that Chuck Ross is running his restaurants non-union that were previously union,” said UNITE HERE Local 30 spokesperson Daniel Rottenstreich.

New York-based Delaware North Companies had been operating the two restaurants under different names, along with the shopping plaza in Old Town where they have been located since 2005. But the company had been losing money. So North decided to transfer the concession to Ross last December. The transfer, authorized by the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation, which owns Old Town, contained an amendment to the existing concession contract. That amendment, obtained by the Gay & Lesbian Times, states that new concessionaire Chuck Ross, “has no obligation to hire any of its past employees.”

“Our intention is to start over as non-union, with a new staff for the new business we are opening. With the economics of this deal, and the troubles this operation has had, it’s not financially feasible to keep this as it is,” Ross told the San Diego Union Tribune last February.

Once Ross became the concessionaire of the two restaurants and shopping plaza, he decided to operate only the two restaurants but lease the plaza shops.

One hundred thirty union workers and another 20 non-union workers were employed at the plaza during North’s tenure. After they were terminated, Ross invited the employees to reapply as nonunion, but he didn’t guarantee their rehire. Ross spokesperson Julia Simms estimates that 80 of the 130 union employees had worked at the plaza’s two restaurants, 114 of whom reapplied. Ross rehired 31 of the 114, said Ross spokesperson Julia Simms. The plaza’s shops have also rehired between 20 to 25 of the 130 previous union employees, she said.

Ross, a local GLBT community ally, has contributed to the “No on 8” campaign, Dine Out for Life, South Bay Pride and San Diego Leather Pride, among other causes, and claims that the community is turning its back on him. Two of the plaza shops that Ross is leasing, Beacon Artworks Gallery and Designs in Shell, are gay operated and are in agreement with Ross about the dispute.

“Boycotting Fiesta de Reyes is boycotting the LGBT community,” said Beacon Artworks Gallery founder and artist Randy Riccoboni.

“We are saddened by the recent boycott of Fiesta de Reyes and Chuck’s business. Chuck Ross is a friend and avid supporter of the LGBT community,” said Design In Shell artist Frank Casciani.

Several GLBT leaders, however, think otherwise. They say that Ross’ community support should not outweigh how he treats his workers. “If he wants to be called a member of our community, he needs to be held accountable to our community and our alliances with labor,” said San Diego Equality Campaign Executive Chair Sara Beth Brooks.

“As a champion for marriage equality and Dine Out For Life, Ross’ support should not be diminished, but to give our friends in the community a free pass when they’ve clearly breached the moral and legal imperative of a worker’s right to join and keep a union is unacceptable,” said Pride at Work, San Diego Chapter Co-chair Carlos Marquez. Ross, Riccoboni and Casciani say they have been losing money since the union started demonstrating in January.

“All the employees from the restaurants and stores, all the traffic has been blown away by the protesters. So for the last three months, the workers didn’t earn tips and the restaurants had no business. The union is destroying the restaurants’ and shops’ ability to do business, Simms said.

“If we go back to when the picketing started, we are down 65 to 75 percent. They have destroyed all of my holidays. Easter is like my Christmas because I sell decorated eggshells. People have just stopped coming in,” said Casciani. Ross’ spokespeople claim that the workers, both those formerly employed under North and the restaurants’ current employees do not want to be unionized. After North announced that its employees would soon be terminated, Local 30 hosted a meeting in which Local 30 President Bridgette Browning told the plaza’s employees that it would fight to keep their jobs. One plaza employee left the meeting upset and created and distributed a petition to the restaurants’ employees that said the union should “stop all plans of protest, demonstrations and/or litigation.” Seventy-seven employees signed the petition and sent it to the union.

“The letter is profoundly indicting,” O’Sullivan said. The petition gatherers misrepresented the petition to the employees who signed it, Rottenstreich argues.

“First of all, it wasn’t translated into Spanish for most of the workers. The servers went around collecting signatures telling workers to ‘Sign this. It’s for the union.’ And because of the chilling atmosphere that was created from finding out that they would be terminated, a lot of the employees signed it,” Rottenstreich said. Simms says that Ross would allow his workers to unionize if they wanted. O’Sullivan, a past union-organizer, says he and the restaurants’ managers recently met with Ross’ current employees and told them about their right to unionize. “We have not heard anyone that has asked for or wanted to create a collective agreement” since then, O’Sullivan said.

But the new amendment to the existing concession contract, signed by Ross, eliminated employees’ right to unionize. “Section 42 (Union Organizing) shall be deleted from the Contract,” the amendment states.

Ross, however, argues that if the union really cared about its members, it should have renegotiated its contract with North last August when it expired.

“The union failed its employees to negotiate to extend their health benefits after their contract expired,” O’Sullivan said.

“That’s beside the point. If you care about the workers, why would you blame other companies? Wouldn’t you be compassionate to those who have been thrown out on the street,” Rottenstreich asked. Fernando Robles, past bartender at Fiesta de Reyes, says he initially welcomed the change in concession, that is until he found out he was losing his job.

“When it was first announced that Chuck Ross was taking over the operations at Old Town I was excited and optimistic. Nobody wants to improve service and profits at Old Town more than the workers here. After all, when business is good, we make more tips, get more hours and make more money. But we quickly realized that Chuck Ross did not want us as a partner, Robles said. “I don’t think its right for a company to just come in to a state park and treat workers this way,” he said.

Both sides say they have tried to contact each other to settle the dispute with no luck. “I have offered them the opportunity to meet with the unions as well as leaders from the LGBT community, and I offered to set that meeting up. I offered them an impartial mediator that I would find unrelated to all the parties involved. I was told that they would consider it and would take it back to their people. But I haven’t received any response from them,” said San Diego Equality Campaign Executive Director Sara Beth Brooks. “We have tried to meet with them [Local 30]. Ross has gone to all his elected officials and tried to set up a meeting and they all refused,” Simms said.

Assemblymembers Marty Block and Lori Saldaña sent letters to Ross about their concern for the plaza’s employees in February. “I am concerned by your efforts to ostensibly lock the current workforce out of job opportunities,” Saldaña wrote to Ross on Feb. 27. “The preservation of good paying jobs in my district is of the utmost importance to me. Please provide me with information on your efforts to remedy this situation.”

A week after the union chapter announced the boycott, LGBT and allied officials and activists including Rep. Bob Filner, City Councilmember Todd Gloria and San Diego Human Relations Commission Chair Nicole Murray-Ramirez participated in a union rally and demonstration in front of Fiesta De Reyes plaza, where the two restaurants are located. Filner, Murray-Ramirez, Local 30 President Bridgette Browning and several others led protestors to the plaza’s front gate and sat down blocking its entrance where state park rangers arrested, cited and released them. “My constituents have lost their jobs, and I was there to try to work for my constituents. Whenever I can be in a position to help people who are treated unjustly, I try to do so,” Filner said.

“I am not only a gay man, I’m Latino and consequently the treatment by Chuck Ross of his long time Latino employees and the firing of them, because he’s anti-union, is very upsetting to me and it should be to the GLBT community,” Murray-Ramirez said.

At present, Local 30 is planning to expand the boycott to a national level. Rottenstreich has one venue in mind: San Diego Pride. “If the dispute keeps going, we think that Pride weekend will be a great place to educate LGBT visitors all over the country about this boycott,” he said.

Union files suit against state Last March, UNITE HERE Local 30 filed a lawsuit against the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation alleging that it violated the law by not opening up the Old Town concession for public bidding. “The contract should have been put out to bid and never was. The fact that this contract was negotiated behind closed doors and allowed these workers to be thrown on the street has done irreparable harm,” said UNITE HERE Local 30 spokesperson Daniel Rottenstreich. The state’s Department of Parks and Recreation is authorized to award a concession based on evidence that the “assignee qualifies as a ‘best responsible bidder,’” said the department’s lawyer Tara Lynch in a prepared statement. Lynch could not be reached to clarify what the state defines as a “best responsible bidder” or why it didn’t open the concession for public bidding. The Superior Court of California, Sacramento is scheduled to hear the case on July 10.