Calling in the feds

Hotel sought immigration audit of workers asserting their right to a living wage
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An upscale Emeryville hotel embroiled in a nasty, yearlong labor dispute appears to have called on the owner's conservative political connections to bring about an immigration audit of the hotel. Worker advocates say the move was an effort to intimidate immigrant workers involved in a campaign to enforce a living-wage law.

Kurt Bardella, a spokesperson for US Rep. Brian Bilbray (R–San Diego), told the Guardian that a representative of the Emeryville Woodfin Suites contacted Bilbray's office for assistance Feb. 1.

The request came within weeks of Alameda County Superior Court and Emeryville City Council rulings requiring the Woodfin to rehire the 21 workers it fired just before Christmas, allegedly due to worker Social Security numbers not matching federal records. That injunction was in effect pending an investigation of workers' claims that the hotel had retaliated against them for organizing to enforce Measure C, a living-wage law passed by Emeryville voters in 2005.

"We were contacted by one of the HR people at the Woodfin Suites," Bardella told us. "They told us about the situation" and explained that they "had no mechanism" to deal with it, he said.

Bilbray, who chairs the House Immigration Reform Caucus and is one of the most vocal opponents of the recent immigration bill, wrote directly to the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in February to request that it investigate the immigration status of Emeryville Woodfin Suites employees in order to "to create a mechanism for the employer to address this issue."

Bilbray represents the suburban San Diego district in which Woodfin Suites president Samuel Hardage lives. "We treated this as a constituent issue," Bardella told us.

Hardage is not only a constituent; he has consistently contributed to Bilbray's campaigns for at least the past 13 years, donating $4,200 in 2006. A George W. Bush Pioneer, having raised $100,000 for the 2004 election, Hardage is also a major player in California and San Diego Republican politics.

Workers say the ICE audit was an intimidation tactic that should not have been used against them while they were trying to assert their rights, and ICE's internal policies raise questions about whether the agency should have gotten involved in this labor dispute.

For months the Woodfin Suites has tried to justify firing workers who organized for better labor conditions by alluding to fears of reprisal by ICE. In a May 8 San Francisco Chronicle op-ed, General Manager Hugh MacIntosh castigated the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), a labor-affiliated think tank that supports the hotel's workers, for "resorting to well-worn intimidation schemes to secure workers' support for their organization drives."

The "fact that our hotel has been asked by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to provide employment records, coupled with the agency's raids in the Bay Area, suggests that our actions are anything but voluntary," he wrote.

The Bilbray connection significantly undermines this claim and could be significant in a pending state lawsuit by the workers. It is against the law for an employer to fire workers for organizing for better working conditions, regardless of immigration status. Under current immigration laws, however, it is also common.

"Employers often contact immigration authorities ... in order to avoid liability," Monica Guizar, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, told us. "It is a well-known and documented tactic that employers use to stymie union organizing campaigns [and] escape liability for vioutf8g workers' rights."

In recognition of this abuse, memorandums from the Department of Labor and internal ICE regulations have been established to dissuade worksite interventions when a labor dispute is occurring.

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