Hotel workers, many immigrants, win wage gain

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EMERYVILLE, Calif. — After over a year of struggle, workers at the Woodfin Suites hotel here won a big victory Aug. 27 in their struggle to be paid according to the city’s 2005 living wage law.

In a unanimous late-night vote, the City Council ruled that the hotel must pay out more than $300,000 by mid-September. Included are some $250,000 in back pay to workers, a $45,000 fine to the city and $21,000 for an operating permit. The Woodfin has exhausted its appeals under city law, but said it plans to appeal in court.

After a rally that drew hundreds of labor and community supporters to the City Hall steps, the hearing began with a dramatic moment as Mayor Nora Davis ordered the Woodfin’s lawyer to leave the council chambers for disrupting the proceedings. He later returned after promising to follow the rules.

The labor struggle began after Emeryville passed the living wage ordinance in November 2005. When, months later, Woodfin workers — many of them immigrants — demanded their living wage and told the City Council they were not being paid according to the new law, the hotel threatened some with firing under alleged Social Security no-match letters.

Despite public pressure, including ongoing labor-community picket lines and rallies, as well as City Council actions and court rulings holding off the firings, 12 workers were ultimately fired. Their claim that the hotel retaliated against them because they insisted on their rights is still pending in court.

Throughout, the workers have been supported by the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), the Alameda County Central Labor Council and dozens of union and community organizations.

“Emeryville has been pretty much a pro-business city, but with this egregious mistreatment of workers, the city lost its patience,” EBASE spokesperson Sarah Norr told the World. “We hope this victory will let other people know they can win if they stick to it.”

As the Woodfin workers celebrated their victory, immigrant rights organizations, including the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, were launching a two-week-long special campaign for congressional investigations into the root causes of the growing wave of migrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border, and the rampant human rights abuses by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other law enforcement officials, the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights announced this week.

At an Aug. 27 media conference that brought together leaders from organizations around the country, NNIRR said the campaign, starting Aug. 28, would call on Congress and people of conscience to demand an end to the escalating immigration raids, jailings and deportations, as well as the militarization of the border and the impending flood of no match letters under the administration’s recent administrative order.

Besides the soaring deaths at the border, especially along the Arizona-Sonora border where over 200 migrants are known to have died since Oct. 1, participants expressed grave concern over the spread of military-style enforcement methods, growing collaboration between immigration authorities and local law enforcement, and abusive detention practices that are affecting immigrants and U.S. citizens throughout the country. They cited the role of NAFTA and similar agreements in forcing migrants to leave their homes in search of survival.

The recent deportation of Mexican immigrant Elvira Arellano “symbolizes the experience of millions of people living and working in the U.S. who are being separated on a daily basis,” Isabel Garcia of the Tucson, Ariz.-based Coalicion de Derechos Humanos told the press conference.

“Right now the immigration enforcement and border control policies are creating a devastating humanitarian crisis that is being visited on immigrant and refugee communities in the United States. Families are being shattered and communities traumatized,” said NNIRR spokesperson Arnoldo Garcia.

“An aspect that we are highlighting here is that immigration is now seen through the lens of the war on terror, which has complicated the situation of migrant communities and for everyone living along the border,” said Pedro Rios of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S.-Mexico Border Program.

“We strongly oppose the very framework on which recent immigration reform proposals have been built,” said Shiu-Ming Cheer of the California-based South Asian Network. “These have been built on advancing corporate business interests and so-called free trade policies at home and abroad, which would assure that more generations of communities would be forcibly displaced,” she added.

mbechtel @pww.org