A hunger strike for health care

May 11, 2010

Alessandro Tinonga reports on the hunger strike by members of UNITE HERE Local 2850, who were locked out of their jobs by the Castlewood Country Club.

DURING MOTHER'S Day weekend, workers locked out at the Castlewood Country Club in Pleasanton, Calif., began a hunger strike to urge management to let workers return to their jobs.

Seventy-four days had passed since management at the Castlewood Country Club locked out 61 food and beverage workers on February 25. The workers, represented by UNITE HERE Local 2850, have been picketing up to eight times a week to pressure the company.

The latest round of negotiations that took place on April 27 resulted in management backtracking on some key proposals. The hunger strikers launched their action over the weekend while the club hosted its annual Mother's Day feasts, in order to bring more public pressure on the company.

"I am [going on] a hunger strike because my savings have run out and I have no way to provide for my family," said Nelzon Lopez, a locked-out worker participating in the hunger strike. "I am sacrificing because the club management needs to hear our voices, and I want to support all of my coworkers in getting back to work."

Francisca Carranza, Sarah Norr, Nelzon Lopez and Wei-Ling Huber are on hunger to draw attention to their struggle
Francisca Carranza, Sarah Norr, Nelzon Lopez and Wei-Ling Huber are on hunger to draw attention to their struggle (Brooke Anderson)

The labor dispute was initially set off during contract negotiations last December when the company made a proposal to end employer-provided family medical coverage and have workers pay $739 a month to qualify. The average hourly wage of the union workers is $12.50--making family medical benefits almost impossible to obtain at that cost.

"If the medical were $739 per month like the club's proposal, there is no way that I would be able to afford it," said Carlos Hernandez, a dinner cook at Castlewood for five years. "My wife and children would lose coverage. I am very worried because my wife just had gallbladder surgery last week...without the medical coverage I do not know what she would have done."

IN THE lead-up to the lockout in February, the union offered major concessions to avoid management barring workers from their jobs. Workers offered to raise the number of hours of work in order to qualify for coverage, pay a share of the health care costs and take a wage freeze.

"We are being reasonable," said Marisol Gil, who has worked for five years at Castlewood as a banquet server. "Even though the medical has always been free for workers, we are offering to pay $225 per month for our family medical."

What you can do

You can donate to the hardship fund for locked-out workers of the Castlewood Country Club online.

Call Castlewood General Manager Jerry Olson at 925-485-2232 and Board President Jim Clouser at 925-837-8969 and ask them to let us come back to work and maintain affordable health care for our families.

Sign the online petition in support of the hunger strikers.

Join workers and activists on the picket line at Castlewood Drive (near the corner of Foothill) on Tuesdays from 8-11 a.m.; on Wednesday from 8-11 a.m. and 5-7 p.m.; on Friday from 8-11 a.m. and 5-8 p.m.; on Saturdays from 8-11 a.m. and 5-8 p.m.; and on Sundays from 10 a.m.-1 p.m.

According to Local 2850's figures, the concessions that were offered in the union's health care proposal would have saved the company money.

In the company's February proposal, management offered a raise to the workers while still charging $739 per month for family medical. Many of the workers refused to accept this proposal because they did not want to sacrifice their coworkers' coverage for a small wage increase. Additionally, the wage increase is a more expensive proposal than the union's.

UNITE HERE Local 2850 President Wei-Ling Huber said the lockout is not about money. "[T]he union has proposed an agreement that would cost not a penny more than the club's most recent proposal," she said. "But rather than being open to the union's suggestion of redirecting the same amount of money towards family health care instead of wages, the company has chosen to lock the workers out in an effort to starve them into submitting to management's own view."

Management has been focused on forcing workers to accept a bad deal or get rid of the union. For, over 30 years the club has had a union workforce and negotiations had been routine, without incident, every few years. When the company decided to effectively cut off the livelihood of its workers to force them to accept a harsh deal, it demonstrated an offensive posture.

The act of a lockout put immense pressure on the workers to accept the company's proposal or decertify the union. In April, a decertification election was held by the National Labor Relations Board. Despite having the opportunity to kick out the union and return to work the next day, workers overwhelmingly voted to keep the union, 41 to 17.

After two months of being locked out of the job, the workers remain strong.

Many politicians have come out in support. On April 6, the Pleasanton City Council voted in favor of a resolution that asked Castlewood to end the lockout while it continued bargaining.

Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty held a forum to raise awareness about the plight of workers. In March, California State Assembly member Alberto Torrico walked with a delegation of the workers' children into the club to appeal to General Manager Jerry Olson, only to be escorted off by the Alameda Sheriff's Department.

One of the strongest sources of support is union solidarity. Over a dozen different unions and community groups, from the painters' union to the office employees, have adopted a day to lead picket lines. Several organizations have donated much-needed food, and many local unions have pitched in funds and support.

The cornerstone of the fight is the courage and determination of the locked out workers. "After 73 days, I've gotten to know my coworkers and their families," said Francisca Carranza, who is participating in the hunger strike. "I know a lot of them have little kids, and I know that they're struggling."

Francisca was a janitor at the country club for 16 months before she was locked out. She was the newest member of the shop, and she is one of most persistent workers on the picket line.

During the first night of the hunger strike, a member of the club sat next to her and ate a full plate of nachos. He unsuccessfully tried to coax her into breaking her fast. When Francisca refused to give in, the club member accused her of never being an employee of the club. He then told Francisca that she was not educated enough to know what she was doing.

Francisca, like the other locked-out workers, remain committed to keeping up the fight and refuse to give up their dignity.

"We have a right to be in there working," she said. "It's not right, and it's not fair. I can't stand to see anybody who wants to take advantage of someone just because they have money and the means to do it...I know what I'm fighting for."

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