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Labor Fight Intensifies at Upscale Wine Country Resort, Amid Allegations of Worker Intimidation

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A crowd of people hold candles outside at dusk.
Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa aesthetician Alè Santorio prepares to give a speech during a candlelight vigil on Feb. 9, 2023, as part of an ongoing effort among workers to unionize. (Aryk Copley/KQED)

Dozens of workers at a luxury resort in the heart of Northern California’s wine country held a candlelight vigil Thursday evening to protest their employer’s alleged illegal intimidation tactics to block unionization efforts.

The vigil, held outside the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa, in the city of Sonoma, comes weeks after the resort was accused of violating a federal law that protects the rights of most private-sector workers to organize without facing threats or coercion from their employers.

Unite Here Local 2, which represents more than 15,000 hotel and hospitality workers in the Bay Area, filed the complaint with regulators on Jan. 20, charging that the resort’s management threatened, surveilled and coercively questioned workers on their union activity.

“Our hope is that we can shut down this illegal anti-union campaign that the Fairmont has been on,” said Sonya Karabel, an organizer with the union. “What the company has been trying to do is really unacceptable, it's unethical. And, they're trying to intimidate workers out of joining a union.”

Employees at the large, upscale resort said they are seeking to boost wages and fix workplace issues that management has largely ignored for years. Chronic understaffing has resulted in unduly stressful work shifts for housekeepers, putting them at greater risk of physical injury, while supervisors have done little to address the concerns of spa attendants experiencing sexual harassment by clients, Karabel said.

The hotel’s management did not respond to KQED’s requests for comment.

The Sonoma resort, which on its website “boasts geothermal fed mineral pools, farm to table dining and access to championship golf,” is operated by the French multinational hospitality group Accor, which also declined to comment.

A group of people outside at night hold candles.
Over 100 workers and community members demonstrate in front of the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa on Thursday evening. (Aryk Copley/KQED)

The property’s ownership has changed several times in recent years, with investing firm Brookfield Asset Management most recently acquiring it last year, as part of a larger deal involving 25 hotels, the North Bay Business Journal reported.

Federal filings show that the resort last November hired Quest Consulting, a company with a union-busting reputation among labor organizers, to “persuade” employees on issues related to the organizing effort.

Tony Arguello, a bar captain in the resort’s banquet department, is one of about 30 workers who have been involved in union organizing efforts since last fall. He said managers and consultants have persistently approached workers on the job to tell them that unions are unhelpful and that they could lose wages or benefits if they join. At a recent meeting, Arguello said a manager suggested his own job could be on the line.

“The response was, ‘Well, if you're not happy, you have a choice not to be here.’ And that to me is quite frightening because this is obviously my livelihood,” Arguello, 38, said.

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Karabel, the union organizer, said other workers are also feeling vulnerable, particularly immigrant employees.

“People are afraid to some degree seeing how many resources the company has put into this anti-union campaign,” she said.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is investigating the unfair labor practices complaint, generally takes seven to 14 weeks to issue a decision in most cases.

Employers have a right to express their opinion about unions and can encourage workers not to join them. Yet they are not legally allowed to issue threats imperiling workers’ jobs or benefits or, conversely, to offer workers incentives for rejecting a union, according to Bill Gould, professor emeritus at Stanford Law School.

But, he added, those violations are often difficult to prove.

A young girl holds a candle outside in the dark.
Sayana Mendez is illuminated by candles during a community gathering on Thursday in support of Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa workers who are trying to unionize. (Aryk Copley/KQED)

“That's the difficulty of this particular law, the vagueness of it, the vagueness of the demarcation line between what's permissible and what's not,” Gould said.

And even when NLRB regulators find that employers have broken labor laws, the agency does not have the power to issue fines. The NLRB may seek to reinstate any workers who have been unlawfully fired. But with most other violations, regulators often just send guilty employers a “cease and desist” letter, said Gould, who chaired the NLRB during the Clinton administration and wrote the book For Labor to Build Upon.

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“It’s a slap on the wrist. A lot of people don’t take that too seriously,” he said. “It certainly works to the disadvantage of workers, particularly low-income workers.”

A bill in the last session of Congress would have given the NLRB the ability to issue monetary penalties for employers who commit unfair labor practices — up to $50,000 for each violation, or up to $100,000 if an employee is unlawfully discharged. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act in 2021, but the measure died in the Senate.

The office of Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), who authored the bill, did not confirm whether he plans to reintroduce a similar measure.

The allegations against Fairmont Sonoma are hardly unique.

Nationwide, employers were charged with violating labor law in more than 40% of union elections between 2016 and 2017 — with allegations ranging from retaliation to firing, according to a 2019 report by the left-leaning nonprofit Economic Policy Institute.

“Employers want to avoid unions because they believe it’s costly,” said Margaret Poydock, policy analyst with the group, who co-authored the analysis. “Unions are essentially a vehicle to help increase wages, benefits and work conditions, but also a vehicle for workplace democracy, for employers and workers to talk to each other to improve all these things.”

Some companies are willing to invest significant resources to prevent workers from organizing and bargaining collectively. Poydock’s research shows that employers nationwide spend about $340 million per year to hire “union avoidance advisers,” also known as “persuaders.”

A woman plays guitar while standing outside among a crowd of demonstrators.
Renee Saucedo, a member of the group Almas Libres, performs at Thursday's vigil in support of a union organizing effort among workers at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa. (Aryk Copley/KQED)

Arguello, the bar captain at the resort, said it shouldn’t be that way. “If the employees want to organize a union, I feel that they should be able to do so,” said Arguello, who recently moved from Sonoma to Vallejo — about 40 minutes away — because on his salary he struggled to afford rent in the area.

“There shouldn't be coercion. There shouldn't be harassment, intimidation,” he said. “But right now, it feels like the company has a megaphone and we're standing behind the bleachers.”

At the end of last year, Fairmont Sonoma increased wages for all nonmanagerial employees by $2 or $3 per hour, Arguello said, bumping up his hourly pay to $19.50. But, he added, that was the first significant pay hike the resort offered in the decade he’s been working there, and he believes it was intended to dissuade employees from joining the union.

Even with the recent pay increases, workers at the resort earn lower wages than at Fairmont hotels in the Bay Area with a unionized workforce, organizers said, noting that housekeepers in the Sonoma location make $21 an hour, $7 less than their counterparts at Fairmont San Francisco.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove a reference to a 2022 fact sheet about retaliatory firings during union campaigns issued by the Economic Policy Institute. The EPI has since retracted the fact sheet due to inaccuracies it says it found in the underlying data.

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