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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
Hard hats Play Hardball: Labor unions protested Barry Swenson Builder's proposed La Bahia Hotel at the March 31 meeting at the Civic.

End Game

Labor and builder go head-to-head in final phases of city's La Bahia approval process.

By Curtis Cartier

With a week until the Santa Cruz City Council votes on whether to approve Barry Swenson Builder's plans for a new La Bahia Hotel on Beach Street, the fight between local labor unions and the developer has hit a fever pitch.

Construction unions represented by the Building and Construction Trades Council want BSB to commit to hiring at least 80 percent union workers to build the hotel. Swenson's offer stands at 40 percent. Ned Van Valkenburgh, vice president of the BCTC, calls the proposal "insulting."

"Swenson's offers have grown consistently smaller over the years and he's shown that he has no interest in the rights of local workers," says Van Valkenburgh. "This has been a divide-and-conquer campaign against organized labor, and we want the premier Beach Street hotel to represent more than this developer's broken promises."

Van Valkenburgh points to last October's offer by BSB to hire 65 to 75 percent union construction workers as proof of the company's shrinking commitments.

Jesse Nickell, a vice president for BSB and the face of the new La Bahia, doesn't deny that his offers have shrunk but says that's a natural result of trying to build a smaller structure than the one proposed (and denied by the City Council) last year. He also presents a letter from Van Valkenburgh, dated Oct. 22, 2008, in which the union rep rejects the 65 to 75 percent union labor offer, calling it "inadequate and disappointing."

"When it was a seven-story building, it would have had a steel frame and I would have needed mostly union workers because they are primarily the ones who hang steel," Nickell says. "But I didn't get my tall building. Now it's four stories and a wood frame, so obviously I'm not going to need as much union work."

Nickell says the 40 percent offer amounts to $20 million of guaranteed work. He adds that construction unions' fight against his company is simply a grandstanding maneuver that would never have be carried out if the project weren't as high profile as it is.

"When the Marriot in Beach Flats was proposed you didn't see a single union guy show up and complain, even though there was zero union construction and zero union service staffing agreements," he says.

Meanwhile, UNITE HERE, a local service workers union that includes restaurant workers, hotel clerks and housekeepers, is focusing on whether it will be able to form a union once the hotel is actually built. Unlike their brethren on the construction side, UNITE HERE reps- are not after any commitment of a percentage of union work, but instead are looking to do away with the secret ballot process used by BSB and many other shops.

"We simply want a fair process in which Swenson can't bully workers away from forming a union," says Mark Weller, project coordinator with UNITE HERE. "In order to see progress we want to see a written agreement, and that's something [BSB has] never been willing to do. This is a premier hotel, a standard-setting place. We want to make sure the standard is set looking forward, not backward."

Ironically, this major hang-up may soon become moot if the Employee Free Trade Act, currently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and awaiting approval by the Senate, is made law. The act would make the unionization process sought by Weller the norm and force BSB to cave on this long- and bitterly contested issue.

Both Van Valkenburgh and Weller say their unions are prepared to take to the picket lines if their demands are not met. Nickell, for the moment, is focused on getting through the next week and a half, but said protests from labor groups would not deter his plans to "build a grand contribution to the beach area."

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