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Vigil shows support for new hotel worker union

By Kelly Davis Special to the Daily Planet
Thursday October 19, 2000

Religious protesters waved banners and sang songs outside the Berkeley Marina Radisson Hotel at a candlelight vigil Tuesday night. East Bay labor activists and members of religious groups organized the event to show support for the hotel workers’ new union. The union chapter, recognized in June, is now negotiating its first contract. 

“This is a religious issue,” said Susan Starr, a Unitarian minister from Oakland. She said churches haven’t led the fight for civil rights in decades. “The church needs to be in the world, in the real world on the side of justice.” 

More than 100 people gathered at dusk in the gravel lot across from the hotel. After dark, they marched along the path beside the Bay, behind the Radisson and sang “We Shall Overcome” just outside the windows of the hotel-restaurant.  

Later, five church leaders met with Radisson General Manager Brij Misra inside the hotel, just to let hotel management know the churches were still involved, said union organizer Nicole Lee. The alliance of about 40 churches has honored a union-led boycott of the hotel. 

The union entered its third round of negotiations with hotel management Tuesday afternoon. Misra said the negotiations were cordial, but would not comment on any offers made. Union representative Stephanie Ruby said the two parties were “far, far apart.”  

“They have a long way to go,” Ruby said. “They basically brought an offer to the table that kept things the way they are.” 

While not commenting on the progress of negotiations, Misra said the hotel would follow the city’s mandate to pay its workers a “living wage.” 

“We follow the law,” he said. “Whatever the law comes to be, we’ll abide by it.” 

The Radisson leases its location between Cesar Chavez and Shorebird parks from the city. The City Council decided last month to require all businesses operating on city land at the Marina to pay a living wage, joining other businesses who rent property from the city or contract with the city. After a year of deliberations, the city determined that a living wage is $9.75 per hour, plus $1.63 per hour for health benefits. That comes to about $20,000 per year before taxes, and $260 per month for health care. 

“I think it’s pretty obvious you can’t survive on that in this area,” said Ruby. But she said the workers can use the Living Wage Ordinance as a bargaining tool.  

“It puts them in a good position,” Ruby said. “It sends a strong message to the Radisson that the city of Berkeley wants the employees to get a decent wage and health care.”  

Even so, Starr said the fight is long from over. She said the union’s next battle is enforcing the contract once it’s signed. “But every time I go to one of their meetings, I remember that the people united won’t be defeated,” she said.  

Starr said she feels compelled as a religious leader to be involved in the fight. “Their cause is righteous,” she said. “It’s all about dignity.” But she said the workers are the ones who impress her. “These people know about sacrifice. They know about commitment and loyalty. It’s really very inspiring.”