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Measure seeking to block proposed San Bruno hotel heading to November ballot

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Unite Here Local 2 members deliver to San Bruno city staff more than 3,000 signatures gathered to place a referendum on the November ballot that would reverse the city council’s March decision to sell a 1.5-acre parcel of land to hotel builder OTO Development. (Courtesy Unite Here Local 2)

A multiyear effort by elected officials to bring a new hotel to San Bruno appears to have an additional hurdle to clear.

Hotel and restaurant workers union Unite Here Local 2 says it has gathered the 3,000 signatures needed to place a measure on the November ballot that would enable San Bruno voters to overturn a recent City Council decision to move the project forward.

The proposed hotel would be built by South Carolina-based OTO Development on a 1.5-acre parcel of city-owned land on El Camino Real, which the City Council agreed to sell to the developer for its appraised value of $3.97 million.

But the union-backed referendum would reverse the council’s recent approval of the sale.

At issue is Unite Here’s desire for a guarantee that workers at the proposed hotel would be able to unionize without fear of retaliation. San Bruno officials have not obtained such a promise from OTO.

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But OTO spokesperson Sam Singer previously told the San Francisco Examiner that any implication the developer would retaliate against employees for exercising their legal right to organize was “utterly false.”

Unite Here spokesperson Laurel Fish said she is skeptical of OTO’s willingness to let employees organize without fear of reprisal.

“It’s a red herring for OTO to say workers have a legal right to organize, yet at the same time say, in a public hearing, that they don’t want anything coming between them and their employees, and they think the hotel would be better off without a union,” Fish said.

San Bruno resident Carolina Calvo said working at a non-union hotel was such a grim experience, she eventually sought work at a unionized property. During her four years as a housekeeper at the Fairfield Inn & Suites in Millbrae, Calvo claimed her wage never topped $9.50 per hour, and she was afraid to demand better treatment.

“We used to clean 16 rooms per day with no benefits, no vacation, no sick days and no pension,” Calvo said. “And we were always afraid to talk about our rights.”

Singer claimed even without being a union house, the proposed hotel would provide good working conditions and compensation.

“The employees will have health insurance, life insurance and a 401(k),” Singer said. “These are good-paying jobs that are going to be competitive with other hotels in the area.”

Fish acknowledged nonunion hotel desk clerks in San Mateo County often enjoy compensation well above the minimum wage, but the labor organizer said the same couldn’t be said for non-union housekeepers.

“‘Competitive wages’ is a real misnomer in a job market where non-union housekeepers typically start at minimum wage or just above,” Fish said, “The average non-union housekeeper makes about $19,000 per year.”

When asked whether using the referendum process to put the brakes on the hotel development might be detrimental to workers, who would have to wait longer for the proposed hotel to start hiring, Fish said, “You could say the same thing about a proposed Wal-Mart, or about any bottom-of-the-barrel employer.”

Singer said it would be premature to speculate about whether the project will be delayed, because the signatures the union has gathered still need to be validated by the city. And Singer claimed it is not clear whether the referendum’s language would stand up to a legal challenge.

“There’s been no delay, and we’re not sure right now if there will be a delay,” Singer said. “Unite Here’s action may have no impact, other than as a publicity stunt.”

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