Union victory at Castlewood

November 7, 2012

Alessandro Tinonga reports on an inspiring victory for UNITE HERE members.

UNION WORKERS at the Castlewood Country Club in Pleasanton, Calif., east of the Bay Area, returned to their jobs victorious on October 16 after being locked out for two years, seven months and 21 days.

The workers, represented by UNITE HERE Local 2850, were shut out of their jobs at the end of February 2010 after the union refused to accept a $846.75 increase in monthly costs of medical coverage, something that had been a free benefit for workers for decades.

After many months of protests, pickets and organizing, the workers finally scored a major victory in August when Administrative Law Judge Clifford Anderson of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Castlewood's more than two-year-old lockout was unlawful. Anderson recommended that the club reinstate workers and pay them two years worth of back wages and benefits, which would cost an estimated $3.4 million.

"It's important for folks to understand that this doesn't guarantee that it's all over," said Sarah Norr, an organizer with Local 2850. "Castlewood does have the option of asking for a review of the case from the NLRB in Washington, D.C."

Locked-out Castlewood workers and their supporters march through the streets of Pleasanton, Calif.
Locked-out Castlewood workers and their supporters march Pleasanton in a 2010 demonstration

However, at this point, it appears that management is starting to cave. It has brought Local 2850 back to the negotiating table, and workers were allowed to return to their job under the conditions of the contract that expired before the lockout started. Of the 60 workers who were locked out at the beginning of the dispute, 45 have returned to their jobs.

"I hope that this sends a message that it isn't okay to hurt people and bust unions," said Michael Yonke, a waiter at Castlewood. "We are going to move forward in a way that makes sense, but I think we will persevere."

CONSIDERING THE two-and-a-half years of hardship they endured, it's a testament to the Castlewood workers' determination that most them were able to stick together and come out ahead.

From the beginning, the odds were stacked against workers. The union's organization at Castlewood was relatively weak compared to many other UNITE HERE Local 2850 shops. But when the club threatened to lock out workers, many rank-and-file leaders stepped up and worked with the union to prepare for a long fight.

Castlewood was armed with a powerful and expensive legal team, not to mention plenty of cash in reserve. According to club records, the first year of the lockout cost Castlewood $300,000.

To fight back, the union and the workers launched an extensive boycott campaign. By making personal appeals, applying pressure and walking the picket line, workers were able to convince many organizations and associations to withdraw their business from club, including the NFL Players Association, St. Mary's College, the Oakland Athletics, the San Leandro Boys and Girls Club, and the Junior American Golf Association. Again according to club records, this cost Castlewood $370,000 worth of profits in 2010 alone.

Management made many attempts to coax workers back to work. In March 2010, the Club campaigned for locked-out workers to decertify their union. Managers held meetings in which they told workers they could come back the next day if they voted out UNITE HERE. When the decertification vote took place, the workers voted to keep their union by a 41-17 vote.

In August 2011, management said it would allow workers to return to work, but refused to guarantee that seniority would be protected, demanded that some of the replacement workers stay, and declared that paying union dues would be optional. The locked-out workers rejected the proposal.

Considering that fact that many workers were living off slim hardship funds from the union and had limited resources to pay the bills, it's inspiring to see that so many held out against the pressures.

Of course, some of the pressure from Castlewood wasn't strictly economic. Early in the fight, rumors circulated among the workers that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was becoming directly involved, checking on immigration status.

At one picket line, management used gold carts and private security to block off the road to the clubhouse and stated they would use a "citizen's arrest" to prevent workers from marching at their gates. To avoid physical confrontation, the union decided to march back to the lower courses.

Another major obstacle for workers was the slim support among club clientele. In many UNITE HERE campaigns, the union relies on solidarity from the customers of the unionized restaurants, venues and hotels where they represent workers. Usually, most customers show some sort of sympathy with union workers, according to UNITE HERE members. But at Castlewood, support was hard to find--and no wonder: To become a member requires an initiation fee of $25,000, plus monthly dues of $630.

In several cases, workers had to put up with the arrogance of some club members. In at least one instance, a club member spat on a union member when she tried to hand out leaflets at the clubhouse. In another case, a club member almost ran over a workers' child with a golf cart during a picket line near one of the courses.

In June 2011, 24 workers and allies staged a direct action during the club's annual tournament. The demonstrators blocked the main intersection, which prevented club members from entering the lower golf course. One member then hit a gold ball at the demonstrators from the intersection. To enter the course, members then decided to tear down one of the clubs fences so that their carts could reach the green.

Despite the hardship and abuse, a majority of union workers at Castlewood held strong and are now back at work. "I want to thank all of you that supported us and gave us solidarity," said Francisca Carranza, one of the locked-out workers. "Without your love and support, we would not have been able to make it."

At a time when millions of families are struggling to get by and unionized workers are facing concessions and lockouts, the workers at Castlewood Country Club are an inspiration. They showed that when working people stick together and fight, they can defy the odds and fight off the money and maliciousness of the millionaires.

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