In the heart of California’s wine country, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa offers guests access to on-site geothermal mineral pools, an exclusive golf club and farm-to-table dining.
“Like the Native Americans who revered the site as a sacred healing ground, you’ll live in harmony with nature through vast open spaces, beautifully landscaped grounds, majestic redwood trees and inspiring sunsets,” boasts the resort’s website.
That purported serenity on stolen Native American land has not extended to the workers at the luxury resort where union avoidance consultants hired by and staying at the hotel for the past several months have been trying to suppress their union organizing drive.
Late last year, workers started trying to organize a union with Unite Here Local 2 in response to staffing issues that have persisted through the Covid-19 pandemic, stagnant pay as housing costs in the area have soared, and issues such as neglected infrastructure. Around 250 workers at the hotel would be included in the bargaining unit.
Workers say these issues had gone unaddressed for years until the hotel started rolling out changes to try to temper some of the grievances aired in support of the unionization effort. Amid these efforts in response to the union campaign the hotel hired several union avoidance consultants who have been staying at the hotel on and off since November 2022, surveilling workers, holding anti-union meetings and trying to dissuade workers from supporting the effort.
Tony Arguello, a banquet server at the resort for 10 years, had to move an hour away from the resort because rent in the Sonoma area has soared in recent years.
Arguello explained that right before the Covid-19 pandemic, the hotel hired a third-party firm to evaluate the efficiency of each employee, which he said resulted in the hotel consolidating jobs, adding extra duties to individual workers without any change in pay.
“My co-workers and I tried to negotiate, negotiate and appeal to our managers and ask for solutions to real problems in our operations and we can’t really get anywhere,” he said.
When the union campaign first started at the hotel in October 2022, Arguello said he was brought into an office with a manager and told “if you don’t like it, you don’t have to be here” after he cited some of the issues workers had at the hotel in response to prodding by the manager over the start of the union campaign.
“Having union busters in the hotel with great frequency, it’s challenging because they have a megaphone and full access to employees, while people who are organizing, we have limited time, like on our break, when we can talk about this, and we can’t have union organizers or reps in the hotel,” added Arguello.
But he said workers were still optimistic about gathering enough union authorization cards to file for and win a union election.
Several workers described the effect that the union avoidance consultants have had on the campaign and working conditions at the hotel. Among the consultants hired by the hotel are several with a record of opposing unionization efforts from Quest Consulting, LKLS Consulting, Libra Management Consulting and Lighto Labor.
According to a recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, employers spend $433m per year on union avoidance consultants to bolster employer union-busting efforts.
Miriam Gonzalez, a housekeeper at the hotel for 17 years, said she pushed back against the union avoidance consultants who had been frequently approaching her and her co-workers in the hotel hallways, asking them why the hotel had all of a sudden implemented a new system to reduce the number of rooms each worker had to clean and introduced a wage increase early.
“I asked him: ‘Why are you doing this now, why have you become so friendly all of a sudden?’ And he said it was because the company was scared of the union, that the threat of the union is there and that’s why we’re doing this,” said Gonzalez.
She said the union avoidance consultants are a constant presence in the hotel. An anti-union flyer distributed to workers portrayed the union organizing drive as a “desperation” effort to gain members and charge dues.
“The union wants to bring to Sonoma the same ‘fight’ and divisive conflict they typically use in the city,” the flier claims.
The flier also claims consultants were hired just to explain the unionization process to workers, but workers say they have gone beyond doing that, given their ongoing presence in the hotel and their constant interrogation of workers.
Unite Here Local 2 has filed several unfair labor practice charges against the hotel alleging constant surveillance of union activity, threatening employees with loss of benefits for supporting the union, conferring new benefits and raises on workers, and soliciting and promising to resolve grievances to undermine the union effort.
“At first HR told us they were neutral, that the consultants were just laying out the process of unionizing. I thought they would go away after that, but instead they’ve stayed,” added Gonzalez. “I think that creates fear.”
Bobby Phillips, a front desk agent at the hotel, said he supported the union because his father had been a union member throughout his life and he had experienced the benefits and safety net that it had provided his family. He frequently has checked the union avoidance consultants in and out of the hotel.
“They’re still there now,” said Phillips. “I know a lot of other co-workers are annoyed by them bugging them and inhibiting their work.”
He criticized the hotel spending thousands of dollars to hire and put up the union avoidance consultants in the hotel in response to workers asking for neutrality.
“It’s upsetting because it’s deceptive to people who haven’t heard about the union yet. I think they’re tricking them into thinking it’s a bad thing,” added Phillips.
Aaron Brumley, a banquet cook at the hotel for 11 years, claimed the banquet kitchen was finally remodeled in November 2022, once the union campaign was launched, after workers had been asking to get the kitchen fixed for years.
“Anytime we asked for repairs, we were just literally ignored for years about things that needed to be done,” said Brumley. “We can see right through what they’re doing. People laugh about it, almost on a daily basis, the fake smiles, the pats on the back, the raises, all that stuff we’ve been asking for this for 10 years and we get it within a couple of months of trying to form a union.”
The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa did not respond to multiple requests for comment.