A drab hearing room in the National Labor Relations Board's (NLRB) West Los Angeles office lit up Monday with intrigue as a former manager from the Miramar Sheraton Hotel turned whistle blower, accusing the hotel of running an extreme and illegal anti-union campaign to sway workers before they voted last October to end their union affiliation.
In scathing testimony which, if true, amounts to an embarrassing tell-all against the posh Miramar, Ulysses Black, a former nonunion supervisor in charge of the hotel's two restaurants and room service, recounted one example after another to show how hotel executives had been consumed with the goal of winning the union-decertification election at any cost.
Black, a seven-year employee when he was fired in March, is a star witness for the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union, Local 814, which is seeking to prove to the NLRB that the Miramar used unlawful union-busting tactics to win in last fall's election.
Some of the pre-election strategies Black described were merely aggressive – hotel managers were instructed to meet one-on-one with employees and woo them with wage and benefit promises, for example. But union organizers argue that some of the hotel's other methods were downright illegal.
In his sworn statement Monday, Black said he was told by hotel executives, and by the union-busting consultants they had hired, to intimidate workers, interrupt union organizers when they talked to employees, give special treatment to those who said they would side with the hotel – and target those who said they would not.
According to Black's account, hotel executives knew exactly who was who. They kept handwritten lists dividing workers into three categories: pro-hotel, pro-union, and undecided. Every time a worker picked sides or switched alliances, the lists were updated.
A cashier in the hotel's cafe-restaurant – who ended up with a nearly four-dollar-an-hour raise for her loyalty, Black said – acted as an inside agent for hotel executives. She hyped the hotel's position to her colleagues and then supplied William Worcester, the Miramar's general manager, and Rafael Igoa, director of human resources, with information about where particular workers stood on the election question. Worcester would not return repeated phone calls for this story, Igoa brushed past a reporter who questioned him in the hallway during a break in the NLRB hearing, and an attorney representing the hotel refused comment on the charges.
A Miramar attorney did address the broader question of the NLRB inquiry during the ongoing hearing. “Once the employees were given the chance to speak . . . they voted against [further] union representation,” said Joseph Herman, an attorney with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. “It is a gross violation of the employees' rights not to certify this election.”
What is perhaps most surprising about Black's testimony is that it comes from a man who is anything but a union supporter. In fact, he describes himself as anti-union, pro-hotel and a reluctant witness who was subpoenaed by Local 814 to testify.
After all, this is the same company guy – a classy dresser in a pressed three-piece suit who carries himself with the air of an English butler – once trusted by hotel executives to wait on President Clinton when he stayed at the Miramar. And his is the face and name that appeared in local restaurant magazines reviewing the hotel's food and wine.
Other hotel workers and labor leaders in Los Angeles are celebrating a six-year contract they signed in January with a half-dozen hotels to boost wages and enhance benefits. But Local 814 is fighting a more basic labor battle: to keep its grip on Santa Monica's only unionized hotel.
Black's startling testimony, the most recent twist in a startling series of developments at the Miramar, is pivotal for Local 814, which lost last fall's decertification election by 12 votes but appealed the result to the NLRB. If the NLRB rules in Local 814's favor in the current hearing process, there will be a new election, and the Santa Monica union local will have another shot to retain its beachhead at the Miramar. Not, of course, if the hotel has its way.
Dozens of the Miramar's unionized workers have gone public to blast the hotel for its pre-election campaign, and their call has been taken up by labor activists, clergy and several members of the Santa Monica City Council. But to date, Black is the only nonunion manager to join the crowd of critics.
“It's extremely rare to have a whistle blower,” said Kurt Petersen, a lead organizer for Local 814. “A lot of times you have whistle blowers who only come out years later, and then it only helps you with [public relations]. This will help with the actual case.”
The hotel officially terminated Black for not turning in paperwork to justify a trip he took to Australia this winter so he could spend time with his ailing father, who died in February. Black calls the paperwork charge a trumped-up technicality hotel executives are using to retaliate against him for refusing to intimidate pro-union workers and disrupt their efforts to organize.
When the Miramar resorted to illegal tactics in defeating the union, Black said, he broke ranks. He filed a complaint with the NLRB against the Miramar in March, alleging he was fired for refusing to engage in illegal union-busting activities.
“I was considered by other managers not to be part of the team,” Black said. “I was alienated by upper management.”
Winning became so important a goal to the Miramar, Black said, his own boss told him to spend more time worrying about the union issue and less about hotel guests. “'We need you to stop this union thing,'” Black said, recalling one of the many comments made by Darren Moll, director of restaurants, and Black's immediate boss.
When he was told by his bosses to stand close behind a bartender and well-known union organizer talking to fellow employees – to intimidate the bartender and make sure he knew a manager was watching and listening – Black said no. And when human-resources director Igoa and restaurant director Moll told him to interrupt pro-union workers who were talking to other workers in one of the hotel's restaurants, Black said no again.
However, Black complied with instructions from hotel executives to “back off” disciplining pro-hotel workers. So when a pro-hotel employee showed up drunk, Black had to let it go. And when another pro-hotel worker continued to miss his shifts, Black gave him a slap on the wrist.
“I was fed up with his behavior, but my hands were tied,” he said.
Meanwhile, Black said, Igoa and Moll targeted certain workers known as pro-union. One time, Moll told Black that he had specifically assigned a large dinner party to a pro-hotel waiter to reward his loyalty, instead of giving it to a pro-union waiter he criticized for not being “part of the team.”
Another time, Black said, Igoa told him to keep a close eye on one particular union organizer. “'If he makes a mistake, I'd like him written up and get him out of here,'” Black said, repeating Igoa's comment. At press time, hotel representatives had not responded at the hearing to Black's allegations.
Labor supporters say the Miramar's campaign against pro-union workers continues, and cite the case of Delmy Falla, a housekeeper and union organizer first terminated by the Miramar in 1996. On April 17, an arbitration panel reinstated Falla with back pay, ending her two-year fight. On April 20, the Miramar fired her again.
In a tersely worded letter copied to Local 814's Petersen, Igoa accuses Falla of disrupting a meeting in her boss's office last September and making derogatory comments. “I have a lot of witnesses saying I wasn't disrespectful,” Falla said. “I wasn't even working at the hotel and they fired me. It makes me think the hotel is scared of me, one worker.”
Pro-union activists, religious leaders and politicians who organized last year under the name Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism (SMART) to show solidarity for Miramar workers, plan to march on May 12 from the hotel to Santa Monica City Hall in support of Falla.
The same group conducted a public hearing in December, featuring a lineup of Miramar workers who told stories about the hotel's union-busting techniques, similar to those Black described. In a report derived from the hearing, the SMART activists – clearly sympathetic to the union's cause – accuse the Miramar of creating an unbearable work situation, hostile to union activity. The Santa Monica City Council is scheduled to discuss the report on May 26 and may take action on it.
The report also blasts the NLRB, accusing the labor board of not adequately protecting Miramar workers. Local 814 organizers share that concern and fear the NLRB will favor the hotel in the hearings that are under way. Black's testimony, they say, could make the difference.
“It's hard for me to believe we will not prevail after what we heard,” Petersen said. “There's no reason to believe he's not telling the truth.”
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.