Labor unions have constitutionally protected rights to free speech, but some non-union workers who have been targeted and harassed for nearly two years by a Southern California-based union in the hospitality industry say the group’s extreme tactics have gone too far.
For nearly two years, the fabled Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles has been besieged by Unite Here Local 11 protestors who have disrupted neighbors, harassed guests and intimidated current employees, according to a spokesperson at the hotel.
Like hundreds of hotels in the region, the Chateau Marmont faced drastic reductions in staff at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. Although the Chateau’s management team reduced the capacity of the hotel, it never closed, and more than two dozen full-time employees remained on staff to serve the needs of longtime guests who chose to remain on the property during the pandemic.
“Every business in the hospitality industry had to make tough choices in the early days of the pandemic,” said a spokesperson for Chateau Marmont. “The only way to keep the Chateau open and financially viable after more than 90 years in business was to reduce staff until guests were ready and willing to travel and stay at hotels again.”
A GoFundMe campaign was immediately launched for the former workers, and it raised more than $300,000, including a $100,000 donation by the Chateau’s owner, André Balazs, and significant donations from celebrities like Patricia Clarkson, Sam Rockwell and Dominick Dunne . The funds were distributed to the former workers according to seniority.
Despite the fact that the Chateau Marmont has never been a union hotel since its inception in 1929, a hospitality workers’ union based in Southern California and Arizona called Unite Here Local 11 seized upon the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic to target the iconic non-union hotel with a barrage of protests and press releases designed to damage the hotel’s reputation and financial bottom line.
“I have been harassed going into and coming out of work,” says an administrative staff member at the Chateau who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retribution by members of Unite Here Local 11. “I believe in the workers’ rights to free speech, but they are jeopardizing my livelihood and the lives of my colleagues and their families.”
Chateau Marmont employees say the Unite Here Local 11 protestors have yelled obscenities at guests, blocked cars coming onto the property and created loud disturbances to disrupt the guests in their rooms.
As Unite Here Local 11 was staging their weekly protests, the union’s own membership was suffering from the same malaise afflicting the entire hospitality industry. Unite Here Local 11’s president Kurt Petersen admitted that 95% of his union’s workforce lost their jobs during the pandemic. The union’s own government filings, known as the LM2 in the Department of Labor, show that the union lost 10,629 members, a 37% drop, between 2019 and 2020, which resulted in a $7 million dollar revenue shortfall in 2020.
The filings also document that Unite Here Local 11 raised its monthly dues from $66 to $76, a 15% increase, in the middle of the pandemic. That drew the attention of two U.S. Representatives, who sent letters to the national chapter of Unite Here, demanding that the union stop collecting dues and fees from their unemployed workers.
While out-of-work union members were being pressured to pay dues in 2020, the government filings show the union was spending $4.3 million on “representational activities” like lawyers’ fees, protest costs, newspaper ads, airplane banners and funding “astroturf” groups.
The 2020 LM2 filing shows six Unite Here Local 11 employees were paid $199,989 for “boycott” activities.
“Unite Here Local 11 claims to be advocating for its workers,” said a spokesperson for the Chateau, “but here they are spending millions of dollars to target the hard-working staff and innocent guests of a non-union hotel.”
Accusations of the improper use of members’ union dues and extreme tactics are nothing new for Unite Here 11, which has been called on of the most “militant” local unions in the country and whose leadership has been criticized for advocating for policies that go against the interests of its members.
Despite the union’s claims that they were trying to help the Chateau Marmont’s former workers get their jobs back, their protests seemed to be designed to keep hotels closed during the pandemic. “After trying and failing to keep hotels closed, despite most adhering to strict LA County and state-based safety guidelines, Local 11 is now committed to driving away the very business that its members rely on,” said Charlyce Bozzello, communications director at the Center for Union Facts. “Does that sound like a union committed to getting its rank-and-file back to work? We certainly don’t think so, and Local 11’s members aren’t likely to either.”
More than a year of combative protests reached an apex on April 23, 2021, when more than two dozen Unite Here Local 11 members, some of whom were paid agitators with no affiliation to the union according to a Chateau spokesperson, trespassed onto the hotel’s property, broke through a locked door and burst into the foyer. Security camera footage captured the protestors storming down the driveway as Chateau staff members ran inside for their safety. The video shows the union protestors yelling at a security guard as he and a few Chateau staff members put themselves in harm’s way to prevent the angry mob from reaching the lobby of the hotel.
“They were demanding to speak to the manager of the hotel and threatening her,” said the Chateau security guard, who asked to remain anonymous. “I was concerned about the safety of my colleagues and our guests. I didn’t know what they were capable of.”
Despite Unite Here Local 11’s own violation of numerous municipal codes and statutes covering permitted protests, union officials filed a formal complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the Chateau’s employees of “engaging in surveillance or creating impression of surveillance of employees’ union activities” during their protests of the Chateau.
In a statement about the filing, Unite Here Local 11 co-president Kurt Petersen said, “The hotel fired their workers and cut off health insurance at the outset of this pandemic. And when workers rise up to fight for their jobs, the Chateau’s top manager spied on them.”
In 911 calls from the evening of April 23, 2021, the voices of Chateau employees and managers can be heard, asking for police to respond, saying they are concerned about their safety.
A hotel spokesperson said in a statement about the NLRB charge, “This meritless claim is just another attempt by Unite Here Local 11 to harass a non-union hotel — a hotel which actually provides significantly better pay and health benefits to its employees than the union does for the same positions.”
It didn’t take long for the NLRB to resolve Unite Here Local 11’s complaint by dismissing most of the claims made by the union after the hotel’s labor counsel showed investigators evidence of union members violating the law.
“On April 23, 2021, members of Unite Here Local 11 and their paid agitators unlawfully stormed the Chateau Marmont, forcibly breached the entrance and threatened the hotel’s employees and guests,” said Lawrence Stone, labor counsel for Chateau Marmont. “When evidence of this was presented to the National Labor Relations Board, they dismissed five of Unite Here’s allegations, and the claim that was settled resulted directly from Unite Here’s illegal activity.”
Unite Here Local 11’s protests continued throughout 2021 and included boycott threats against the production companies and studios behind the on-location filming of “Being the Ricardos” and “The Offer.” Both shoots were canceled under pressure from their own union members, costing the studios untold millions of dollars and intimidating other productions from filming at the historic location that has been featured in hundreds of movies and TV shows in the past century.
Unite Here Local 11’s exorbitant spending of its members’ dues has reached new heights in 2022. The union’s own social media channels promoted the all-expenses-paid trip to London for union members and former Chateau workers to protest outside the Chiltern Firehouse, another non-union property owned by André Balazs, during the BAFTA awards in March.
Since March of 2020, the Chateau’s management has rehired more than 50 former employees according to the tenure guidelines established by the City of Los Angeles’ right-to-recall ordinance. Nearly 100 former employees were offered positions in December of 2021 according to the city’s right-to-recall protocols as the hotel starts the process of increasing capacity, but a Chateau spokesperson says Unite Here Local 11’s costly campaign against the hotel has hindered the Chateau’s efforts to bring former workers back.
“There is nothing we want more than to be back at full capacity and serving our loyal guests,” said a Chateau spokesperson, “but Unite Here Local 11’s unmistakable threats to the physical safety of our employees, ongoing intimidation of our valued business partners in the entertainment industry and relentless harassment of our guests has made it impossible to bring all of our former workers back.”
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