Trouble in Paradise:
Bitter Carmel hotel labor battle has roots in San Francisco
January 6, 2014
Copyright © 2014 Marc Norton
Carmel, celebrated as an artist colony nestled above a picturesque white-sand beach, is not where you would expect to find a picket line. But there I was, with maybe 40 others, on a Friday evening the week before Christmas, in front of the La Playa Hotel, shaking noisemakers made from plastic bottles, chanting, “WHAT DO WE WANT? OUR JOBS!”
Happy holidays, indeed.
Two years ago, in November 2011, a new owner took over the La Playa Hotel, closed it down, and put a hundred workers on the street. When the hotel reopened after a $3.5 million remodel, it was with a whole new staff. The new owner “tossed us out with the old carpets” reads a workers’ leaflet. Workers like Noe Hinojosa, who had been at the hotel 33 years, like Suong Edwards, who had worked there 31 years, like Sherrie Watkins, who had served guests for 28 years.
Carmel is so hoity-toity that it’s illegal to wear high-heeled shoes more than two inches in height or with a base of less than one square inch, unless the wearer has a permit. It used to be illegal to eat ice cream on the street, until Clint Eastwood, who served as mayor in 1986-88, got that law overturned.
But it is still perfectly legal in Carmel to throw workers out on the street after decades on the job.
MADE IN SAN FRANCISCO
The saga of this tragedy begins in San Francisco. For years, the La Playa Hotel had been owned by Nob Hill Properties. The company also owned the renowned Huntington Hotel, a classic luxury hotel perched atop Nob Hill. John Cope, head of Nob Hill Properties, is well connected, having been an officer of the San Francisco Hotel Council, the San Francisco Travel Association, the Nob Hill Association, and the elite Olympic Club.
La Playa Hotel workers had a union contract for decades, until it expired in August 2010. At that point, Cope played hardball and would not agree to a contract that the union, UNITE HERE Local 483, could accept. The dispute boiled over into the street, provoking numerous demonstrations and picket lines.
A year later, Cope sold the hotel and the workers found themselves out of luck. Nob Hill Properties reportedly walked off with more than $23.5 million from the sale.
Nob Hill Properties sold the Huntington Hotel in the same deal, but to a different buyer. The Huntington workers had the protection of a union contract with UNITE HERE Local 2, a contract that included good job-security protections. In San Francisco, with a much stronger labor movement than in Carmel, the transition went smoothly.
I called Cope and talked to him about the La Playa Hotel sale, seeking comment for this article. He seemed glad to talk. He volunteered that job security is the “most important clause” in a union contract. He claims that he offered to sign a contract with job security for the La Playa Hotel workers, but wanted the right to subcontract a “signature restaurant” that he wanted to establish in the hotel to a non-union “signature chef.” He said he was surprised that the union wouldn’t accept this. He says he continued to negotiate with the union, but found a buyer, and “time ran out.”
Cope also volunteered that a hotel is “worth less if under union contract.” When I asked him directly if he got more money because he sold the hotel without a union contract, unencumbered by any obligation to the workers, he switched gears and said that it is “hard to tell.”
Cope complained that the union has made him out to be a villain. He still sees some of the former La Playa Hotel workers around town, and assumes that they have gotten other jobs. He says he is “saddened” by the whole affair.
You can take that to the bank, Mr. Cope.
FROM WALMART TO HOTELS
Like most hotel owners these days, Grossman Company Properties, the new owner of the La Playa Carmel, is a real estate company masquerading as a hotel company. Based in Phoenix, Arizona, the outfit owns numerous hotels and resorts, operating under brand names like Hilton, Marriott and Sheraton. Grossman also owns office buildings, residential developments, and shopping malls. The company brags that it developed the “first-ever Wal Mart to anchor a regional shopping center.”
What the executives there don’t brag about is throwing 100 workers to the dogs. But that’s what real estate companies do these days – whenever they can get away with it.
I called Sam Grossman at Grossman Company Properties to ask his side of the story. He hasn’t called back. I also called the La Playa Hotel, but did not reach anyone who was willing to answer any questions.
Sadly, the La Playa Hotel story closely parallels the fight at Hotel Frank here in our paradise by the bay, where I and several dozen other hotel workers found ourselves on the street when the hotel was sold to a new owner and closed, in September 2012. Hotel Frank closed about the same time the La Playa Hotel reopened without its former staff.
Hotel Frank is scheduled to reopen Very Soon Now, as something called Hotel G, but whether or not Hotel Frank’s former staff will be there has yet to be determined.
The other big UNITE HERE fight going on right now in San Francisco is at AT&T Park, the home of the San Francisco Giants. The main issue there is – surprise, surprise – job security.
Ballpark workers in the concession stands, who work for an outside contractor and not the Giants, currently have no job protection should the Giants decide to switch concessionaires. Back in the early 1990s, when the Giants dumped their concession company at Candlestick, workers were forced to take severe pay cuts averaging $4 an hour in exchange for keeping their jobs. Who knows what the Giants have in mind right now? With the team eyeing a big real-estate development deal on a parking lot just south of the ballpark, everything is in play.
Whether it is hotels or professional sports, these days real estate is king. Workers and their unions are just obstacles to be overcome in that good old American pastime of putting profit before people.
The La Playa Hotel workers, Hotel Frank workers, and the workers at the ballpark are all in the same fight. That’s why I found myself on the La Playa Hotel picket line. Who knows where I will find myself next.
Happy New Year all.
Information about the fight at La Playa Carmel can be found at
www.LaPlayaHotelUnfair.org, including Alex Darocy’s ongoing reporting.