Don’t Do It, Iron Chef!

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March 5, 2012 in Culture & Media, Labor & Economy

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I’m going to hate writing this. Every word.

Last week Masaharu Morimoto of Iron Chef fame was outed by my union, UNITE HERE, Local 11 as being in talks with the Hyatt Andaz hotel to take over the RH restaurant, where I work as a server.

I first became aware of the news when I arrived at a large picket in front of the Hyatt Andaz. The action was two days before Valentine’s Day. I was late to the picket because, as noted in an earlier column, I had to drive my mother-in-law to Walmart — which still pains me to admit.

The action in front of my hotel, like many before, was about protesting current work and safety conditions. It was co-sponsored by OUT and OCCUPY, which is a LGBTQ organization that has been unified with UNITE HERE Local 11 in making sure that all workers, gay and straight, are treated appropriately when it comes to workplace safety and equality.

When I got to the picket line. I heard the crowd chanting, “Don’t do it, Morimoto! Don’t do it, Morimoto!”

Oh, my. What? Was this just rumor? Or was there some truth to this? Would the man who expertly skinned a monkfish for the 2008 International Chefs Congress in New York be my new boss? My bank account was dying to know. The potential of chef Morimoto being the culinary director at the Hyatt Andaz would surely bring in foodies and tips. Yes, lots and lots of tips.

A few days later, I discovered that the possible relationship between Morimoto and Hyatt was not just a rumor — an employee newsletter from Human Resources lambasted UNITE HERE Local 11 for pressuring Morimoto to reconsider his relationship to Hyatt. Andaz management seemed plainly pissed off that Local 11 had scooped them before their big announcement and so called for a mandatory meeting on February 17th. It was no doubt an opportunity for Hyatt to slam my union in a captive audience setting to all employees.

My personal elation of potentially having chef Morimoto as my new boss was quickly offset by a worry generated by a few of my coworkers in the kitchen. Why did the Hyatt Andaz not tell Local 11 about this deal with Morimoto when they are required to tell our union of any such changes? Why were they purposely keeping Local 11 in the dark?

Union busting is the worry of many of us and with good cause. In October the famous Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles reopened after a renovation, but laid off about 250 union employees that were not rehired, despite the fact that those same workers helped to get and maintain the company’s Five Diamond status.

Hotel Frank in San Francisco is another example of a company that has tried to get rid of its union workers. The hotel was purchased by Wells Fargo in 2010 and run by Provenance Hotels, a management company hired by the bank, but instead of honoring the contract for union employees, Provenance has refused to recognize the UNITE HERE Local, 2 contract.

Instead, they have chosen to fire a few key organizers, which has spurred plenty of picket lines. The National Labor Relations Board in February of 2011 issued multiple complaints against Provenance for violating federal labor laws and for firing or disciplining workers for engaging in protected union activity.

A couple of weeks ago, my own Local 11 further angered Hyatt Andaz with a video praising Morimoto for his impressive culinary skills, but asking him to stay away from Hyatt.  EATER LA gave the reply from Philip Dailey who is the general manager of the Andaz hotel. It is quite the back and forth that has me wondering if chef Morimoto is destined to speak up about this anytime soon. This might be a more difficult feat than skinning a monkfish.

The truth is that a whole lot of us are worried about our jobs. I believe that workers are worth more than the buildings around them and they have a right to know what is happening with their futures. One of the most unsettling episodes of all of this was finding out that some of our low-level managers had been tipped off that they would not have jobs as soon as Morimoto came in with his staff.

This was information discovered after the union uncovered the secret dealings with Morimoto. It begs the question: If lower-level management members are set to lose their jobs, why wouldn’t the rest of us?

I asked our union representatives to be present at our company’s mandatory meeting on Friday to pose some of these questions that myself and other workers had, but it ended up being more than anticipated drama when management succeeded in kicking out our reps with the assistance of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.

Andaz management clearly didn’t want our representatives present for what they had to say. They know they have an immense advantage in captive audience settings.

Julius G. Getman in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times writes on this subject:

“The result has been a system favorable to employers. That’s because employers can gather the employees together, often during work hours, to convince them that voting for unionization would not be in their interest. Management will talk about debilitating strikes, union dues and the chancy nature of collective bargaining in what are known as ‘captive audience’ meetings. It will assert its strenuous opposition to the union. Union representatives have no chance to respond ‘in kind’; they can’t speak at those events and must make their points at meetings away from the work site, during workers’ off time.”

I listened to Philip Dailey disparage UNITE HERE for roughly 30 minutes on February 17th, but as he walked away from the screen during his PowerPoint presentation, I spoke up. I suggested that he work with Local 11 and Morimoto to get a contract that keeps the workers on board. He said none of us would lose our jobs. I said we need that statement in writing.

I’ve been screwed before by words, words, words.

Am I paranoid about losing my job in an era of obvious union busting? You bet and the Hyatt Andaz has not quelled my fears, especially when they have chosen to keep the union from the bargaining table with Morimoto. It doesn’t show good faith.

As one of my fellow co-workers pointed out to me:

“Morimoto’s a great name, but maybe not so great if he replaces you with somebody else.”

I knew I was going to hate writing this. I’ve got an ulcer again.

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Jim Lair Beard
Jim Lair Beard is a writer who worked as a server at the Hyatt Andaz for two years.
Read more articles by Jim Lair Beard

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