Judge Denies Restraining Order in Woodfin Case

By Judith Scherr
Friday February 23, 2007

A judge turned down a Woodfin Suites Hotel application Wednesday for a temporary restraining order intended to prevent an Emeryville city councilmember and labor leaders from coming within 500 feet of the hotel. 

The Woodfin, at 5800 Shellmound St. in Emeryville, is embroiled in a labor dispute with its workers. 

In a two-paragraph decision, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Winifred Y. Smith agreed with attorneys for Emeryville City Councilmember John Fricke, Alameda County Building and Construction Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer Barry Luboviski, Alameda County Central Labor Council Coalition Director Wendall Chin and the pro-labor organization East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, affirming that the complaint “arises out of the ongoing labor dispute” between the hotel and the labor organizers and did not warrant a restraining order. 

“Despite the fact that I’m a lawyer, I have faith in the judicial system—I had confidence that the judge would do the right thing,” said Fricke by phone after the decision was rendered.  

Labor organizers have been supporting Woodfin workers’ efforts to have the hotel implement Measure C, a Living Wage law for hotel workers passed by Emeryville voters in 2005, requiring a minimum wage and limiting the square-footage that housekeepers clean each day before they are paid overtime.  

Woodfin management says it is implementing Measure C, while workers argue they are asked to clean more than the law allows without being paid overtime. 

In their application for the emergency TRO, hotel attorneys said Fricke and the labor representatives “entered the Woodfin Suites Hotel … and acted in a threatening and harassing manner toward several young employees of the Woodfin Suites Hotel.”  

Attorneys for Fricke, Luboviski, Chin and EBASE responded orally Wednesday in an unusual hallway hearing outside offices that serve Alameda Country Superior Court Department 31, located above the post office at Jackson and 13th streets in Oakland. 

Because the application was presented as an emergency measure, it was not on the regular court calendar: a research attorney took written and oral testimony in the hallway, consulted privately with the judge, then made the judge’s ruling public to the attorneys and press waiting in the hallway. None of the defendants attended the hearing. 

At issue was whether the defendants’ actions and hotel response were part of the ongoing labor dispute or separate from that. 

Attorneys for Fricke and the labor representatives argued that the hotel’s aim was to squelch the labor organizers’ right to free speech and prevent them from carrying out their efforts to support the workers.  

But Woodfin attorney Jeff Ames, of San Diego-based Shea Stokes said the TRO, unrelated to the labor strife, was necessary because the “threatening” behavior 

of Fricke and the others had disturbed hotel guests and frightened employees. 

In a phone interview Tuesday, Fricke described how he saw the incident that sparked the hotel’s TRO application. On Feb. 13 Fricke said he led a delegation of labor organizers – Luboviski and Chin – into the hotel, asked to see the manager and, when informed that the manager was not there, gave the front desk employees his card and said, “I hope as a hotel you will abide by Measure C” and left. 

“It astounds me that they are using the courts to try to curtail the effort to get them to comply with Measure C,” said Fricke, represented at the Wednesday hearing by attorney Ben Stock at the behest of the city of Emeryville.  

But Woodfin attorney Ames asserted that hotel employees found Fricke’s behavior threatening. “[The employees] were distressed; they were shocked,” he told the research attorney. 

“This is not a labor dispute,” Ames further argued. “We’re not seeking to quell free speech.” He said the picketers were free to demonstrate on Tuesday and Saturday as they did every week, but they were not free to intimidate hotel guests. “We seek to stop them from interfering with business,” he said. 

Speaking for defendants Chin and Luboviski, attorney Stewart Weinberg, of Weinberg, Roger & Rosenfeld, contended: “Mr. Chin and Mr. Luboviski were not accused of opening their mouths. They were just walking into the Woodfin.” What was really going on was an effort to target demonstrators, he said. “They want to keep the demonstrators a football field away from the Woodfin.” 

Speaking after the judge’s decision was rendered, Woodfin manager Hugh MacIntosh reiterated that the charges “had nothing to do with the labor dispute.” 

EBASE organizer Nikki Bas said that while she was happy with the ruling, she thought the TRO application was a waste of time and money: instead of hiring a communications firm (Woodfin engaged Schellhorn Communications to alert the press to the TRO application) and lawyers, “Woodfin should have spent the money paying the workers what they are owed,” she said.