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04.22.09

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Union-busting allegations at The Camp Recovery Center in Scotts Valley, La Bahia gets the nod from Santa Cruz City Council and a local Cuban émigré reflects on the loosening of travel restrictions to her home country.

Camp Discontent

Just because Santa Cruz misses out on the obscenely good, guilt-inducing deals of Walmart doesn't mean we have to do without the nail-biting drama of corporate union-busting allegations and crappy work condition complaints from current and dismissed employees of other workplaces.

Theo Jackson, a former senior case manager who worked at the Camp Recovery Center in Scotts Valley for three years, claims he was fired after leading efforts to unionize workers at the treatment center. According to Jackson, last August 80 percent of staff signed cards supporting unionizing, and 35 to 40 presented a formal petition to become a part of the SEIU Local 521. On Oct. 3, Jackson received a letter in the mail saying he had been terminated for falling behind on his paperwork. Jackson says that while he had been on a 90-day probation period in 2007 for the same reason, being behind on paperwork was the norm for many staff at the Camp due to high caseloads, and that he was employee of the month for the second time just two months before his firing. (The management at the Camp refused to comment for this article.) Jackson now lobbies in Washington with the SEIU to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. He has also given a deposition to the National Labor Relations Board, which is investigating his firing.

Employees who remain at the Camp say workloads have increased. Charlotte Lyons, a clinical technician, is concerned about patient care at the facility, where she says staffing levels of nonmanagement workers have dropped from 75 in October 2007 to 55 now. She says the caseworkers have caseloads of 12 to 18 patients each.

"We're trying to segue people from coming down from drugs. ... They need direction, they need to be given psychological tips on how to change their behavior [so] they can go back into the world without using drugs, and they're not getting that now," Lyons says. "If we can get this unionized, I think this will make a difference," she asserts.

The Camp, a for-profit residential and outpatient detox and recovery center, is owned by Bain Capital as part of CRC Health Group, which has over 145 mental health facilities across the country.

Since August's vote to unionize, management and the union have not been able to negotiate a first contract, which is crucial: if a year passes without a contract, employees can vote to decertify the union.

Members of Local 521 are holding a conference at the Camp on Thursday, April 23, from 2 to 3pm to bring visibility to their cause.

La Bahia Gets Council Nod

It's approved. After six years of designs, redesigns, council approvals and disapprovals, union outrage and public input, Barry Swenson Builder finally got the OK from the Santa Cruz City Council to tear down the historic La Bahia Apartments on Beach Street and build a luxury hotel in its place. The hotel's blueprints call for 125 rooms, four stories, 5,000 square feet of meeting space and all three of the current La Bahia's renowned courtyards to remain intact.

"It feels really good," said BSB vice president Jesse Nickell after April 14's packed City Council meeting. "It's been a long process, but it's a better project because of it. Anyone who wants to build [on the Santa Cruz beachfront] should know that the barrier for entry is tough."

The vote went 5-1 in favor of the new hotel, with Councilmember Tony Madrigal opposing it and Katherine Beiers absent. The rows of Council Chambers were filled mostly with pink-sticker-wearing project supporters. And surrounding them, a ring of sign-clutching union workers encircled the hall, preferring to stand. Ned Van Valkenburgh, an outspoken carpenter's union representative, led the opposition at the meeting. He has asked for BSB to commit to at least 80 percent union construction workers to build the hotel. BSB's offer stands at 40 percent.

"We were hoping for a better decision, what can I say?" said Van Valkenburgh after the meeting while he stacked his troupe's picket signs into his SUV. "I'm not sure where we go next."

The California Coastal Commission must still approve the plans before any construction can start. It will likely hold hearings sometime in the fall. Nickell, responding at the meeting to a question from Madrigal about what he would do if the CCC turns down the plans, said he was "prepared to redesign the project."

Madrigal said his nay vote was "for the people now and in the future" and added that the rest of the council was caving to economic hard times.

"We're making concessions that we might not make if it wasn't for these economic times," he said. "We have to ask ourselves, 'At what price?'"

Besides him, however, the rest of the council lavished praise on the project. Lynn Robinson called it "beautiful," Ryan Coonerty said it was "very attractive," Don Lane invoked the term "seeds of revitalization" and Mike Rotkin surprised everyone by saying nothing and simply voting "yes."

"This is an evolved project that we should be thrilled to have in our community," said Mayor Cynthia Mathews at the hearing. "This process has made a better hotel that will be on Beach Street."

Havana Bonanza

It was a hot summer day in Havana when Virginia 'Gina' Val-Leiva was sneaked onto a plane and flown to Miami as part of "Operation Pedro Pan." It was 1961, and the 9-year-old girl, like an estimated 14,000 other Cuban children, was sent alone to the United States after the U.S. government and Miami Roman Catholic Archdiocese convinced thousands of Cuban parents that their children would be taken by Fidel Castro's revolutionary forces and brainwashed into communist lockstep.

"I remember thinking the sky was very beautiful that day," says the charming 57-year-old former social worker. "My mother was very worried because when we got to the airport there was a lot of commotion. People had come to see a [Russian] cosmonaut [Yuri Gagarin] and my mother had to hide me behind her skirt because she thought the neighbors would see me and report us."

Today, Val-Leiva lives in Santa Cruz, a city "very in-tune with the Cuban struggle," according to her. She's traveled back to Havana twice: once in 2003 along with Congressman Sam Farr and again in 2007 with the Pastors for Peace humanitarian group. Each trip required her to jump through a series of legal and illegal hoops. But now, with President Obama having rolled back a few key restrictions on the 47-year old United States trade and travel embargo with Cuba, she's hoping her next trip will be as easy as making it to the San Jose airport on time.

"It's been 50 years since the revolution," she says, tears glistening in the corners of her eyes. 'It's time to move on. Both for Cuba and for America. It's time to stop oppressing the Cuban people because of an old policy."

Val-Leiva's old travel buddy, Rep. Farr, agrees. On April 13, the same day Obama made the sweeping changes to the United States' foreign policy with Cuba, Farr delivered a letter, signed by 46 other members of Congress, that called for many of the actions the president would later sign into law. Though the trade blockade still stands, Cuban-Americans can now travel to the island to visit family members as many times as they wish and can also send money and gifts to relatives with no cap on the value of such items.

"Our government has been hostage to policies put in place 50 years ago, and that's not how we re-establish our nation as a leader," Farr says in a statement on his website. "It's time to initiate a complete overhaul of our relationship with Cuba. It will start with reform to family travel and remittances, but it can't end there."

For Val-Leiva, the aging Castro and the Communist Party are a real and emotional reminder of the life she fled. And while she believes the United States must lift the embargo for the Cuban people to have a shot at democracy, she says Cuba must also do its part in allowing freedom for its citizens.

"Cuba must make people free to travel too," she says. "Unless you know the right people you can't leave the country. I don't want to see Cuba look like America, but I do want the people to have the freedom to choose and the freedom to live without fear."


Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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