From the August 1995 issue of LABORNOTES IN THE SHADOW OF PROP 187: FIGHTING FOR IMMIGRANT WORKPLACE JUSTICE AT THE LAFAYETTE PARK --Nathan Newman In the political shadow of Proposition 187, the mostly immigrant workers of the luxury Lafayette Park Hotel have mounted an organizing drive that has become a rallying point in Northern California for those fighting rising racism and immigrant- bashing. Located in the wealthy inland suburb of Lafayette in Contra Costa County where no new hotel union shops have been organized for decades, the fight at the Lafayette Park promises a new era of activism for the burgeoning low-wage immigrant workforce of the suburbs. "Along with the ongoing struggle at the Holiday Inn--Walnut Creek," explains Jim Dupont, Secretary-Treasurer of HERE Local 2850 which is helping the 100+ Lafayette workers, "organizing the Lafayette Park would mean the beginning of a drive to organize the mostly immigrant workforce of the hotels in the suburbs of Northern California. But the hotel management is mounting a nasty campaign to bust the union before it even is formed." When the two main employee organizers inside the hotel, both Latina immigrants, were fired for their public organizing among their co-workers, it highlighted the day-to-day abuse, illegal treatment and low wages immigrant workers face. Throughout the organizing drive, immigrant employees and people of color have faced harsh retaliation while more favored white workers have been wooed by management with favoritism and promotions over non- white colleagues. As in politics, race and immigrant status have become wedge issues to divide the populace. "In the atmosphere created by 187 and by Pete Wilson," explains 2850 community organizer Stephanie Ruby, "managers at places like Lafayette Park are even more at ease going after immigrant workers because of this green light from the top. Immigrant workers are very susceptible to those threats such as a manager saying casually, Maybe the INS will come in and shut the work force down. Regardless of their immigration status, they know that they will come after the brown people, after the people who have come here from Mexico and Central America. The workers know exactly what it means when a supervisor makes such not-so-subtle threats." But Ruby also notes that this same attack on immigrant workers has galvanized community support. When the union kicked- off its campaign with an April 1st march in downtown Lafayette, over 200 community supporters made the trek to Lafayette Park to show their solidarity. A whole array of organizations have endorsed the struggle against the Lafayette Park management, the Western Lodging Group, including the Mexican-American Political Association, the state assemblyman from the district Bob Campbell, the Contra Costa Democratic Party Central Committee, the National Chicano Human Rights Council, the Committees of Correspondence, and an array of anti-187 organizations. Representatives from all these groups have joined the workers on weekly picket lines and in boycott delegations to clients of the hotel. Ruby notes that another base of support tied to the immigrant rights issue has been the Internet: "We were able to mobilize letters of support and letters of protest over firings within 24 hours. Hundreds of organizations responded, from unions to children's organizations to human rights groups from as far away as Canada that pledged their support. The minute they heard immigrant workers were under attack and it was in the context of what's happening in California, they responded immediately." One of the most exciting aspects of the fight has been the way the immigrant rights issue has mobilized an overwhelming number of college-age and high school students on the picket line where they often make up a majority of picketers. A UC-Berkeley organization called Students Organized for Justice in the Americas (SOJA) has officially become part of the solidarity committee and members are educating fellow students about the struggle at the Lafayette Hotel. Where SOJA was once focused on Central America issues, organizer Ruby notes "It's exciting to see these young people, undergrads, making these connections. It's seeing that these human rights issues are happening right here in our own backyards. It's moving politics from the 1980s into the 1990s." Even more dramatic have been the large number of Latino high school students joining the picket line, primarily through a new organization called the Student Empowerment Project (StEP), which led high school walkouts throughout Northern California in protest during the Prop 187 campaign. Union leaders explain their support partly because the Lafayette workers face conditions much like the high schoolers' parents, but another key reason is the ongoing support the union has given to StEP. HERE 2850 staff director Gabriel Hernandez has been acting as a mentor to StEP and the union has providing both meeting space and resources to support the student organizing. "We've been supporting the young people with resources and now we're seeing a payback. We've got their back and they have ours." Hernandez notes that "a lot of unions talk about building community ties, but it comes down to how you start spending money and how you work with the community to create that unity. The students started with social justice and now see economic justice. And unions sometimes are short- sighted and act on one area without the other area. They only look at the economic justice issues and not the social justice issues--which are sometimes different." Hernandez argues that it is the responsibility of the union to give those without representation a voice and no one needs that voice more than immigrants who are denied a vote and are under harassment from every direction. Creating that voice, he explains, is the commitment of the staff. But it can't stop there in his view. "We have to get our members who have a union to also accept that responsibility. And that is a struggle. There's the reality that many union members supported Prop 187, so it shows the shortcomings of educating our own members about those kinds of struggle." The union has launched an internal education drive among its members, including videos about labor and racism, to promote discussion on how to organize in the increasingly diverse workplaces of the 1990s. SUCCESSES OF THE CAMPAIGN When the first firings of union activists occurred in early February, the union was able to use the base of community support to send immediate delegations to protest conditions in the hotel: the illegal firings, suspensions of union activists, harassment of pro-union workers, mandatory meetings to deliver the anti- union message along with one-on-one meetings to intimidate workers, restrictions on breaks for workers since the union drive began, changes in parking policy to prevent contact with union organizers. the imposition of a "no talking" policy after the organizing drive began, massive increases in management surveillance during work hours, and discrimination against union activists and favoritism towards workers who are known to have not joined the union. "It's exactly because of treatment like this that we want representation," says Socorro Zapien, one of the two main employee leaders fired by the Lafayette Hotel. The April 1st march, the largest in anyone's memory in the tiny town of Lafayette, kicked off a mass boycott of the Lafayette Park and its parent management company, the non-union Western Lodging Group which manages six hotels in Northern California. Through community delegations to corporate offices, the union has gotten a number of key corporate businesses to pull their business from the Lafayette, including AT&T, Kaiser Permanente, and the database company Sybase. Business has fallen sharply under the impact of the boycott and the weekly picket lines in a campaign that Ruby describes as constant escalation. To further increase the pressure, community members have picketed Western Lodging Group's Stanford Park, the most profitable hotel in the chain. The first contact with the Stanford community was at a meeting of the Chicano student group MEChA. The MEChA students immediately made the connection and saw how 187 has effected what's happening at this hotel. With other students and staff unions at Stanford, they not only picketed the hotel but pressured Stanford Law School to withdraw business as well. Over the July 4th weekend, the union took a car caravan from hotel to hotel within the six-hotel Western Lodging Group on a flying picket squad, ending up on July 3rd at the Monterey Plaza where the workers there publicly launched their drive for union recognition. In Monterey, there are discussions starting between the United Farm Workers and the HERE local at Monterey for joint actions and support in the Salinas-Monterey area. While organizers expect a long fight, they are confident that the workers at Lafayette, Monterey and the rest of the Western Lodging Group's properties will prevail. With the attacks on immigrants mounting, the union has helped bring together the force of community members with the hotel employees
in a campaign that is only escalating by the day.