More Freebies for the Rich

Garden Grove bends over for hotel developer, gives workers the shaft

Photo by Jack GouldGarden Grove's redevelopment agency is at it again: giving away millions of dollars worth of land and tax subsidies to private hotel developers who refuse to allow their workers to organize a union ("Freebies for the Rich," Nov. 24, 2000).

On June 12, the City Council was scheduled to approve two new hotel projects—and at least $4.2 million in "financial assistance"—for McWhinney/Stonebridge, a Colorado-based development group. At the request of the developer, however, the agenda item was delayed. When it comes to getting taxpayer-funded handouts, though, the McWhinney/Stonebridge group has little to worry about. The same partnership has already received tens of millions of taxpayer dollars for building the Hampton Inn & Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, and Homewood Suites, all of which are nonunion hotels.

The city land and Community Development Block Grant funds—funneled through Garden Grove's Agency for Community Redevelopment—could have gone to help solve the city's urgent housing crisis. While city housing officials concede that the city's only ongoing "affordable" housing project, Brentwood Village, won't necessarily be affordable to low-income residents, the city has used the bulk of available federal housing funds to purchase land for future hotel projects—even going so far as to use eminent domain to evict a mobile-home park full of fixed-income senior citizens (Jon Hall's "There Goes the Neighborhoods," March 6, 1998).

Meanwhile, the hotels that get built with the city's help provide mostly minimum-wage jobs and working conditions so terrible that, at one hotel recently built by McWhinney/Stonebridge, dozens of workers are seeking union recognition. The hotel, the Hampton Inn & Suites, received $4.2 million in subsidies from Garden Grove, the same amount lavished on the developer for both the Homewood Suites and Hilton Garden Inn. In April, 10 Hampton Inn workers walked off their jobs to protest the working conditions. They allege they are forced to work overtime without pay or adequate breaks and have been threatened with termination if they try to join a union.

"After they walked out, they called me," said Jaime Torres, an organizer with Local 681 of the Hotel & Restaurant Employees Union in Anaheim. "I wrote a letter asking the company to retain the workers. The company said no. We called the owner and members of the City Council. Everyone went back to work."

Union officials later met with the workers and began organizing the rest of the hotel's mostly Latino housekeeping and service staff, obtaining dozens of signatures from workers favoring an union election. In a filing last month, Local 681 officially requested that the National Labor Relations Board supervise a union vote at the hotel this month. According to John Earl, assistant to the president of Local 681, McWhinney/Stonebridge opposes an election and has done everything it can to win the workers back to the company.

"When the workers started signing union cards, the employer said it would change things," Earl said. "They gave one of our leaders $1,000 in 'back pay,' and she decided not to join the union. They offered and provided cheaper health care, but [at $110 per month] it's still extremely expensive for a low-income family. And they started telling the usual lies about the union, using a combination of incentives and threats."

The Weekly's efforts to get the company's side of the story were unsuccessful. There was no answering machine at the office of Navin Dimond, McWhinney/Stonebridge's designated "spokesman" for hotel projects in Garden Grove. Contacted on his cell phone, Dimond said he was in a meeting and couldn't answer any questions and then hung up. Francis Bates, general manager of the Hampton Inn & Suites, also failed to return the Weekly's call for comment.

But Earl said the union is investigating allegations that workers were threatened with losing their jobs if they joined the union. If the claims are true, they represent a serious although rarely enforced violation of federal labor law. Meanwhile, Local 681 is doing everything it can to highlight the alleged abuses during sessions of the Garden Grove City Council, whose members double as the city's redevelopment agency.

"The same owner who is mistreating those workers is asking for a permit to build two more hotels," Earl told the council on June 12. "Redevelopment should be to lift up the workers, not to keep them down. There should be no more subsidies to companies who refuse to let their workers organize."

Three workers who walked off their Hampton Inn jobs also addressed the council. "We're not getting any overtime pay," said Hermenia Sanchez, speaking in Spanish. "I'm here to ask you not to give money to those companies and their developments because I was told by my manager that if I join the union, I'll be fired."

Although several Justice for Janitors organizers showed up at the meeting, the only labor official besides Earl who addressed the council was Randy Parraz, a field representative for the AFL-CIO. "You have the power to level the playing field so that workers have a chance to choose to join a union or not," Parraz urged the council. "Public officials should go the extra mile to let workers in this city organize without fear of intimidation or losing their jobs."

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