OAKLAND – Workers at the Claremont Resort and Spa received their holiday turkeys on Wednesday – but not from their employer, as they had every year in the past.
Instead, with both Santa Claus and The Grinch officiating, the workers were given their turkeys courtesy of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 2850.
The giveaway was the centerpiece of a rally designed to draw attention to the plight of Claremont spa workers, many of whom are attempting to organize a union.
HERE represents hotel workers at the Claremont and is involved in the spa workers’ unionization campaign.
Mayor Shirley Dean, councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Linda Maio and Oakland Vice Mayor Jane Brunner were on hand to show their support for Claremont employees.
Union representatives were doing brisk business with the turkeys, as both spa and hotel workers came out to get their free birds.
“Just the other day, my girlfriend said to me, ‘You know what? We’d better buy a turkey this year, because they’re not going to give you one,’” said Zachary Wroten, a table buser who has worked at the hotel for 15 years.
“The union really stepped up to the plate.”
Union officials awarded a “Golden Turkey” to Jadd Elkeshen, a Claremont manager who watched the turkey giveaway on behalf of the hotel.
Stephanie Ruby, a HERE organizer, introduced Elkeshen to The Grinch, who, along with Santa Claus, presented him with the award.
“The Grinch and the Claremont are of the same heart this season,” she said.
Ruby said spa employees recently filled out “authorization cards” to show their support for a union. Claremont management, she said, refused to count the cards and establish whether they constitute a majority.
“What the workers want is the company to count their cards,” she said. “It’s a very peaceful and non-confrontational way to establish a union.”
“Count the cards!” became a rallying cry among the elected representatives present, who warned Elkeshen about a similar HERE unionization fight at Berkeley’s Radisson Hotel, which they said cost that company a good deal of money.
“It might be instructive to see how much money the Radisson had to spend on lawyers,” said Worthington. “It’s probably not going to cost any more for you to simply accept the union, but the money would be going to your workers.”
Maio said that during the unionization drive at the Radisson, organizations that had booked banquets and conferences at the hotel canceled to show their solidarity with the workers. The same thing would happen at the Claremont, she warned, if the spa employees were not allowed to unionize.
“It’s a black eye I think you’d want to avoid,” she said.
Elkeshen said that he was not in a position to comment on the situation, but was willing to listen to protesters.
“Then you should send (management) a message, because this group has proven that they don’t stop until they win the war,” said Dean.
Denise Chapman, the Claremont’s director of marketing and public relations, said that the company’s turkey giveaway was traditionally a Thanksgiving event, and it was true that this was the first year in some time that it had to be canceled.
“In terms of the tourist industry, it’s been a tough time for everyone,” she said.
However, Chapman said, the resort’s traditional Christmas celebrations went on this year as planned. She said the hotel had two separate parties for employees, one of them to which children and family members were invited.
“We were very pleased we could continue that tradition,” she said. “It was a real priority for us.”
Earlier in the day, Ruby lambasted the “misplaced priorities” of Claremont management and its parent corporation, KSL Recreation.
Claremont management had said that the recent downturn in business following the Sept. 11 attacks meant that the hotel would have to tighten its belt.
Ruby disputed that characterization. She noted that in November KSL Recreation bought the La Costa Resort and Spa in San Diego, for a price her organization estimates as $150 million.
She pointed out the disparities in compensation between Claremont employees who work in the hotel and those who work in the spa.
“Union members in the hotel have access to free or affordable health-care by working 20 hours a week,” she said. “People who work in the spa have to work 32 hours a week to get that, and many of them don’t get that many hours.”
All the elected officials at the rally promised that they would stick with the workers’ fight until they were allowed to organize.
Worthington said that he was struck by the contrast between the opulence of the hotel’s grounds and the low wages of its employees.
“So little of the money that flows through this place gets down to the people who work here,” he said. “Considering how expensive it is to stay here, you’d think that they’d be able to pay people really, really well.”
Brunner, who represents the Oakland part of the Claremont District on the Oakland City Council, said that she was concerned about the changes that have taken place at the Claremont since KSL took over the business.
She said that her office was monitoring not only the situation of the workers at the Claremont, but also the owners’ reported attempts to alter the hotel’s historic gardens.
“The community is watching the Claremont very carefully,” she said.
Ruby said that a union butcher from an Albertson’s store arranged for the turkeys to be delivered.