Protestors chanted “Living wage, not poverty wage!” and “Downtown Oakland not for sale!” to the lively rhythm of music played by a five-piece band featuring a tuba, saxophone, trumpet and drums as they took the streets of downtown Oakland on Tuesday evening. “We’re at the site of the hopefully-never-built Hampton poverty hotel,” shouted Wei-Ling Huber, president of UNITE HERE Local 2850, into a megaphone.
Organizers and members of UNITE HERE, a union that represents East Bay and North Bay hotel and food service workers, as well as members of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network and religious leaders gathered at the vacant lot on 11th St. and Franklin Street across from East Bay Municipal Utility District to protest the proposed construction of a Hampton Inn on that location. Organizers said the proposal, which they call a “backroom deal,” should be open to a public process.
“The city is doing what it seems like going out of its way and bending over backward to approve this hotel, whose owners have a horrible track record of violating workers’ rights,” said Teresa Cheng, a UNITE HERE organizer, speaking last week about the planned rally.
Balaji Enterprises, the developer of the proposed Hampton Inn, also operates the Holiday Inn Express Oakland Airport and Hampton Inn in Alameda. Earlier this fall, Holiday Inn Express workers filed a complaint against the hotel to the city, in which workers claimed that the hotel management was not following the new Oakland minimum wage and sick days law, Cheng said. In 2014, Oakland voters passed measure FF, which raised the minimum wage to $12.25 and required employers to provide paid sick leave. The law took effect on March 2.
In the complaint, workers accused the hotel management of not paying them for all hours worked, Cheng said. Some workers have documented the hours they work, and when they compare it to the hours they are actually paid for, they are consistently paid less, she said. “If they’re not paying workers for the hours that they work, what it averages out to is actually less than $12.25,” Cheng said. “So the fact that the company is actually engaging in wage theft as alleged by the workers—that is a great violation of the minimum wage ordinance.”
Cheng said that Holiday Inn Express workers also reported that when the minimum wage rose, their hours were cut and they were not given vacation days, because the hotel management was now required to provide for sick days.
Dhruv Patel, chief operating officer of Ridgemont Hospitality, the management company of Balaji Enterprises, said in a statement Wednesday that the company disputes the allegations of the complaint, as no legal findings have been confirmed. Patel said the company pays its employees above the current Oakland and Alameda minimum wages.
“We are disappointed that the union have chosen to turn a land use issue into an opportunity to slander our family business,” the statement read. “We own two small hotels in the East Bay and have a great track record of retention and growth from within.”
The statement said that the proposed Hampton Inn would provide more than $1 million in tax revenue. “This can be used to fund public programs, hire safety officers, make infrastructure improvements along with many other things that would directly benefit residents in Oakland,” the statement read.
Deborah Barnes, the city’s director of contracts and compliance, said the department cannot comment on the complaint against the Holiday Inn Express. “This claim is still under investigation and the city does not disclose complaints unless compelled by law. Additionally, the claimants have indicated that they do not want to have their compliant published at this time,” she said in a statement via email.
Francisco Coronado and Consuelo Andrade, former employees of the Hampton Inn in Alameda, were present at Tuesday’s rally in support of the union’s efforts. Coronado stood on the steps of Oakland City Hall with a translator and spoke in Spanish about his experience as a maintenance worker at the hotel.
“The time that I worked there I was supposedly full time, but every time I got my check it was an hour short,” Coronado said. “They would send me home whenever they felt like it. They would just tell me ‘There’s no work for you, go home.’” Coronado said he does not want the same developer to open another hotel because he said he feels workers would be mistreated.
Unionized workers from other hotel chains are also concerned about the possibility of a Hampton Inn in downtown Oakland because they are worried that the employees might not be unionized. Irma Perez, a UNITE HERE member and housekeeper at the downtown Oakland Courtyard Marriott, said she is fighting for new workers to have the same rights she does at Courtyard. “If the city allows this hotel to be built non-union, they’re going to have substandard conditions that are below what we have at union hotels here at Oakland,” she said.
Perez also said the Hampton Inn would put at risk the unionization local hotel workers have fought for. “It’s going to be really hard for us to protect what we’ve won because we’re going to be competing with poverty-wage hotels,” she said. Cheng said that the Courtyard pays housekeepers an average of $15 an hour.
But in Patel’s statement, he said employees would be allowed to unionize after the hotel opens. “Should our employees decide to join a union after we open the hotel, we will support their decision,” Patel said in the statement. “We will not require them to do so now – before this project is finalized and many months before we open.”
Jin Jin He, community organizer for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, said Chinatown does not need the hotel. “The last thing Chinatown needs is a poverty-wage hotel. Instead what Chinatown deserves is a youth center, a senior center and more affordable housing,” she said.
From the lot, the protesters marched to the city council meeting, where they planned to speak to the council during the first public comment session. Council president Lynette Gibson McElhaney did not call any of the protestors’ names during the session, but said they could speak at the end of the meeting. Supporters stood up in protest and left the chambers chanting “No poverty hotels!” as they held signs that said the same thing. Cheng said they had signed up on Friday for the public comment session and thought it was unfair the council did not give workers the time they asked for.
The protestors gathered at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza and continued to rally. “Let’s tell the city council and the mayor to do the right thing, or we’ll be back,” Huber yelled into a megaphone, which resulted in cheers from the crowd.