Saturday, July 5, 2014

La Playa Carmel and the Enduring Picket Line

After two and a half years of protests at La Playa Carmel, former workers who lost their jobs in 2011 continue to return to the hotel to walk the picket line and protest. Likewise, community members have consistently joined the workers to walk the picket line over the years, as have public officials and political candidates.

At a rally held at the expensive, Carmel-by-the-Sea area hotel on June 20, two of those in attendance were former workers who had each been employed at La Playa for over 20 years before losing their jobs. 113 workers were laid off as a group when the hotel was sold and remodeled in 2011. After fighting for first right of refusal when re-applying, the workers received nothing from the new owner, Sam Grossman, and only two of the 113 were re-hired at the time of the La Playa's re-opening in the summer of 2012. In response, a coalition of workers, community members, politicians, activist groups, and the labor union Unite Here return to La Playa Carmel every month to hold rallies.

The hour-long demonstrations are short but spirited, and they usually entail the organization of a circular picket line, which is held in front of the entrance to the main lobby of the hotel, followed by a short rally with speakers.

"When La Playa decided to let go 113 workers, they never thought about us staying here after two years. They thought we were just going to pick up and leave," said Hector Azpilcueta, who is an organizer with Unite Here Local 483, the labor union that represents hotel, restaurant, and other hospitality workers in the Monterey and Santa Cruz areas.

Former La Playa workers, two brothers who each worked at La Playa for over 20 years before being laid off in 2011.

Over half of those laid off at La Playa Carmel had worked there for 20 years or more. Many had worked there for over 30 years. They were members of Local 483, and those working at La Playa had benefited from a union contract for over 40 years until the 2011 close for remodeling.

The union put their most intense pressure on La Playa early on, engaging in civil disobedience in 2011 and calling for a boycott of the hotel in 2012. Dozens of labor actions have been held at La Playa, with the largest turn out taking place during the hotel's grand re-opening celebration. Hundreds of people attended that march, which made it's way directly past the fancy stores that line the main shopping district of Carmel.

La Playa Carmel was built to give as a gift in 1905. The luxury mansion was gifted by an artist to his wife, who was a member of San Francisco's Ghirardelli family. La Playa's website describes it as, "the cornerstone of one of California’s most prestigious neighborhoods." Mini-mansions and lavishly designed homes surround the hotel, which is situated in the middle of a large, wealthy residential neighborhood that is adjacent to the world famous shopping area.

Community support for the former workers varies among Carmel-by-the-Sea locals, but a strong statement was made by a resident in July of 2012 when Clay Ramsay, the owner of a property located across the street from La Playa, contacted the union and lent the use of his driveway to them during an uncharacteristically long demonstration, the two day, 12 hour-a-day "siege" of the hotel.

Ramsay wrote a letter describing his motivations:

"I invited Unite Here's people to make use of my driveway, across the street from La Playa, to help them exercise their rights of free speech and assembly. This house was my deceased parents' retirement home, which I'm keeping. As my parents got into their late seventies, La Playa employees were part of their support system. They watched out for my parents. They saw them in the early morning, when my father bought newspapers at the front desk and chatted, and late at night, when they brought over takeout meals my parents sometimes ordered. Yep, they got room service. After my father passed on, my mother always felt reassured and more secure because of the familiar faces of La Playa staff- many of whom had been there 20-30 years. Some of the people you see around you likely helped my father and mother directly. Most of them definitely helped my parents indirectly, by keeping an institution going that they loved and were happy to live next to. The La Playa staff are people- not commodities to be thrown away- and they are still my neighbors."

The non-union workers hired in 2012 have settled in as staff at La Playa. Occasionally there are job openings at the hotel, but former workers are forced to re-apply like anyone else, and many have reported that when doing so they did not make it to the interview process.

According to the La Playa website, there are currently nine job openings at the hotel.

Demonstrations continue to be held as a vehicle for obtaining justice for the former workers, but the union primarily measures the success of the actions at La Playa in terms of the contract victories gained at other establishments in the Monterey Bay area.

"We continue to fight La Playa to make sure that employers around this area don't try to hurt us," Azpilcueta said.

In 2012 and 2013 Unite Here won contract victories with Monterey Beach Resort, Old Capital Club, and Quail Lodge in Carmel Valley. Later in 2013, the union negotiated the first ever labor contract for restaurant workers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This year the union is currently in the middle of contract negotiations with an unnamed hotel in Santa Cruz, and they are reporting that during the first bargaining session they won health care concessions for the next five years for workers there. They feel the company wants to reach an agreement.

After announcing the Santa Cruz victory, Azpilcueta explained, "the reason is this demonstration. It is not a coincidence."

"It is because we are here on the street," he said. "Everybody knows that the fight at La Playa is the fight everywhere."

Support from SEIU members.

Many politicians share this view. Monterey City Council member Alan Haffa walked the picket line on June 20, as he has done literally dozens of times at previous La Playa rallies.

Additionally, support for the workers has come from those who hold statewide offices in the region; Luis Alejo, Bill Monning, and Mark Stone have all walked the picket line at La Playa. Congressman Sam Farr was an early supporter as well.

Unite Here Local 483 represents over 1,300 hospitality workers on the Monterey Bay at more than three dozen hotels, restaurants, and golf courses. Local 483 is also an affiliate of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council, which represents over 30,000 union members in Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties, and is itself an affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

During election season, hopeful candidates come to La Playa to support the workers, with some joining the picket line well before beginning the interview process for an election endorsement from the union.

Leonie Sherman, a candidate in the current Santa Cruz City Council race, walked the La Playa picket line on June 20. In the last Santa Cruz City Council election, the only candidate endorsed by Unite Here was Micah Posner, who won his seat that year.

Ed Mitchell, who is a candidate for Monetery County Supervisor, spoke at the June 20 La Playa rally about the importance of walking the picket line. Mitchell has walked the picket line dozens of times at La Playa, and was actively participating long before he embarked on his run for office.

"When the union walks, the union walks for everybody," he said.

Azpilcueta agreed with this sentiment, adding "when union workers get increases and improve their lives, it also trickles down to other places that are non union. So this is not just a fight about union workers, it is about everybody in this community."

Ed Mitchell

Leonie Sherman

Timothy Barrett was acknowledged by Unite Here for his support. He is considering a run for Monterey City Council.

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