The San Diego Congressman and the Bay Area Hotel

When is it acceptable for a sitting San Diego area congressman to interfere with the business operations of a San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area hotel?  Apparently when the owner of said hotel pays him to do so.  Representative Brian Bilbray (CA 50th) has embroiled himself directly into the labor dispute between the Emeryville Woodfin Suites hotel and its staff.

The dispute began in 2006 when hotel employees (mostly cleaning staff) charged that the hotel had failed to pay back wages owed to them in defiance of a 2005 Emeryville city ordinance mandating a living wage for all employees.  The Emeryville City Council investigated the claim, and in 2007 determined that Woodfin owed its employees $200,000 in back wages, and ordered them to pay up.  Woodfin refused.

Instead, the hotel challenged the ordinance–Measure C–in court, where in 2008, the ordinance was upheld, and once again, Woodfin was ordered to pay up.  Woodfin challenged the City Council again.  Again, the Council investigated and once more rejected the hotel’s claims.  Woodfin was ordered to pay the back wages owed.  Woodfin refused, saying that they disagreed with the City Council’s decision.

In December, 2009, Superior Court Judge Stephen Brick once again rejected Woodfin’s claims, and ordered the hotel to pay its workers the $200,000 owed.  Woodfin’s response?  They filed a claim demanding that the City of Emeryville owed them $500,000 in legal fees.  That’s right!  Woodfin defiantly disobeyed a court validated city ordinance—repeatedly—and they now claim that the city owes THEM money!

So where does Mr. Bilbray fit into this?  Presumably it all started with a phone call.  Sam Hardage is the owner of the Woodfin Suites chain, and a Rancho Santa Fe resident (within the constituency of Brian Bilbray’s district).  Mr. Hardage was having an employee problem at his Emeryville property, and he needed some help to deal with it.  He was looking for a way to get out of paying the City Council and court mandated back wages.  He knew that many of the complaining staff were likely to be immigrants, some of them possibly in the country illegally.

Mr. Hardage needed a way to send a message, to quell the employee uprising that had occurred at his hotel.  So in 2006, shortly after the initial charges were filed against Woodfin, hotel management notified several employees that their Social Security numbers did not match the names on record with the Social Security Administration.  Shortly thereafter, several employees received “no match” letters from the SSA.

Normally a “no match” letter is not grounds for termination.  The SSA simply initially sends them out to notify the individual that there is a problem with their records, possibly a typographical error, and that steps should be taken to correct the problem.  It is not usually by itself grounds for an investigation into one’s immigration status, and it is not typical for employees who receive “no match” letters to be fired.  In fact, it is SSA policy that employees receiving letters NOT be fired.  And according to the North County Times, the hotel had received “no match” letters for these employees every year dating back for several years, which were met with complete indifference.

Yet this time, after the living wage complaints were filed, and shortly after receiving notification from the SSA, 12 Emeryville Woodfin Suites workers were fired.

It is unusual and highly irregular that a company encourages an investigation into its own employees, but this is precisely what Mr. Hardage wanted.  He placed a call to his notoriously anti-immigration congressman, Brian Bilbray, for his help.  Mr. Bilbray, in turn, flexed his political muscle with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of the Department of Homeland Security to trigger an investigation into the immigration status of the Emeryville Woodfin Suites employees.

Mr. Hardage, it should be noted, is the former Chair of the San Diego County Republican Party, and a major contributor to Mr. Bilbray’s campaign, having directly contributed $6,400 to Bilbray’s campaign from 2006 to 2007.

So what exactly is Brian Bilbray’s motivation to involve himself in the Woodfin Suites hotel dispute?  What has prompted him to engage in a labor dispute 450 miles away from the district he represents?  Surely if Mr. Bilbray was looking for an immigration issue to interject in, he could easily find it in his own district—a district whose southern boundary is less than 40 miles from California’s border with Mexico.

By meddling directly into the Woodfin Suites employment dispute, Mr. Bilbray is interfering with local politics hundreds of miles from his own district.  And despite his claims to the contrary, directly interfering in a labor dispute is exactly what he has done.  He is directly impeding the ability of the City of Emeryville to enforce its own ordinances, which flies directly in the face of conventional Republicanism—after all, one of the primary Republican mantras is to keep the federal government out of local politics……that state and local governments have the right of self determination.

What Mr. Bilbray has done is to place the private business interests of Sam Hardage above the collective interests of the voters of Emeryville (who voted Measure C into law).  It is disturbing that the political influence of Mr. Bilbray’s office can be bought by the bank account of Mr. Hardage.  This is the kind of Government-On-Demand that the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow unlimited corporate contributions to political campaigns in the Citizen’s United case has reinforced.  It guarantees that workers’ rights are usurped by corporate interests.

If this were truly about illegal immigration, then Mr. Bilbray would have instructed ICE to conduct a much broader investigation instead of the specifically targeted attack on one particular hotel’s workforce.  If illegal immigration is the real concern, then why not investigate the immigration status of ALL hotel employees within the City of Emeryville?  Surely the Woodfin Suites is not the only business in Emeryville whose employees received “no match” letters.  Yet Bilbray’s directive was specific to just this one.

It seems that if this were truly an immigration issue, and Mr. Hardage was concerned about incurring large fines for employing illegal immigrants, then he might have contacted (or had his local management contact) the representative of the district where Emeryville resides,  California’s 9th Congressional District, represented by Democrat Barbara Lee.

So why has Mr. Bilbray taken such an interest in the business dealings of a company operating in a far away Congressional District?  The facts of the case and the actions of both Mr. Hardage and Mr. Bilbray make it highly unlikely that immigration was the primary concern.  Mr. Hardage needed a way to intimidate his employees into submission, and what better way than through an immigration raid.  Mr. Bilbray was all too happy to assist one of his biggest donors.  After all, an “immigration investigation” is the perfect guise; it allows him to remain in the good graces of one of his benefactors, while at the same time appearing powerful and effective in fighting the great threat posed by hotel cleaning ladies potentially in the country illegally.

To date, none of the fired employees, none of the individuals who received a “no match” letter from the Social Security Administration, have been deported.

The influence Sam Hardage’s money has been able to purchase from Brian Bilbray should raise alarms to his constituents.  Who, exactly, is he working for?  Whose interests does he represent?  Does he work for ALL of the people of the 50th District, or just the Sam Hardage’s of the world?  Mr. Bilbray has been caught red handed interfering in a labor dispute well outside of his jurisdiction.  To assert otherwise would be purely fiction.  He has plainly used the resources of the federal government in an attempt to advance the private business  interests of a campaign contributor.

Which raises another question:  What is Mr. Bilbray getting out of it?

For more information about the Woodfin Suites labor dispute:


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