Considering the transient nature of Emeryville residents, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of the 2007 Woodfin Hotel ICE “raids”. Emeryville honored the 10 year anniversary of this event at the last council meeting with former Woodfin employees in attendance.
The political battle that was waged in the wake of this event created a political power shift that still resonates today. The incident has parallels with the current citywide living wage ordinance and the debate over sanctuary cities. It’s a long and complicated history lesson that all E’villains should know.
In 2005, a contentious political battle waged over Measure C which was drafted by the labor group EBASE (East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy). The measure was a groundbreaking “living wage” and work standards ordinance for hospitality industry employees. This ordinance would raise the minimum wage for hotel employees to $9/hr. (the state minimum wage at the time was $6.25/hr.). Business interests and some City leaders feared this would diminish the millions in revenue that the Hotel Transient Occupancy Tax generated and impact the programs that it funded. Labor groups advocated that those working in a city should also be able to afford to live here.
Measure C passed with a 54.2% “Yes” vote amid a costly political campaign. The ordinance’s passing was subsequently challenged by Woodfin as unconstitutional. During this legal challenge, Woodfin hotel management put 21 workers on unpaid leave, citing their immigration status. Labor groups contested that this was “retaliation” for these employees attempting to organize and help enforce the ordinance.
A court ordered the hotel to put the employees back to work while the City of Emeryville investigated whether there was indeed evidence of retaliation. In early April 2007, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted an audit of the Woodfin Suites, which led to the firing of 12 undocumented workers. This audit was thought to be initiated by Woodfin Hotel management. Those I reached out to were unaware if any employees were ever actually detained or threatened with deportation.
Labor groups filed a suit on behalf of the suspended and dismissed workers asking for back wages. This incident touched off an ongoing protest against the hotel with routine pickets that went on for years. Woodfin eventually settled its “backpay” suit in 2010 and promptly sold the hotel to the Hyatt Hotel Corporation in 2011.
10 years later, the city acknowledged those impacted by the protracted fight by reading a proclamation recognizing their efforts.
The City of Emeryville hereby commemorates the ten-year anniversary of the Woodfin ICE raids in order to remind ourselves of the horror that ICE raids inflict on immigrants and their families, to honor the workers and their community allies who fought back, to celebrate the ongoing organizing efforts of immigrant workers to win respect and dignity in the workplace, and to reaffirm the City’s commitment to immigrant workers’ rights. As a Welcoming City, Emeryville calls upon employers to establish sanctuary workplaces, where immigrant workers are respected and not threatened or discriminated against based on their immigration status.
Current Mayor Scott Donahue recollected the incident and how the community came together to defend the rights of the dismissed hotel workers. “This was significant Emeryville History” he noted in the below video clip. Audience members included former Woodfin employees such as Maria Martinez. “I don’t want any workers to go through what I went through at the Woodfin” she noted through a translator. Martinez and others called on the city to encourage “Sanctuary Workplaces” that would not comply with Federal immigration laws. Martinez identified herself as a current employee of the Hilton Garden Inn.
Labor groups learned a valuable lesson from the event and saw the strategic value of Emeryville despite its small size. EBASE helped forge a local political group called RULE (Residents United for a Livable Emeryville) to help push labor-friendly policies including our citywide “living wage” ordinance and the recent passing of Fair Work Week scheduling ordinance. EBASE, RULE and various Labor Groups in concert with the local Alameda County Democratic Central Committee now hold a firm grip on political power in our city through political donations, endorsements and communications.
Mayor Scott Donahue’s brother Brian recently made the assertion of RULE holding “total power” in the city with all five current Councilmembers having received their endorsement. Both Donahue brothers and Scott’s wife Tracy “Lillian” Schroth are founding member of the organization. With the absence of any significant business advocacy presence after the dissolution of the Emeryville Chamber of Commerce in 2015, it’s safe to say the political pendulum has completely swung in our city.
Feature Image: A 2007 rally for fired Woodfin Hotel workers (Photo: Brooke Anderson via Flickr).