Tuesday, May 5, 2009 | A labor union that seeks to reinstate sacked Old Town workers says it has averted a potentially nasty showdown with the state over the right to protest on government property.

The state park system had initially refused to allow a Friday rally at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park because it needed to prepare for an event, said Daniel Rottenstreich, political director of Unite Here Local 30. The union threatened to hold the protest anyway and engage in a “civil disobedience action” with Democratic Congressman Bob Filner.

However, negotiations on Monday afternoon with the park system led to an agreement allowing the rally to take place, Rottenstreich said.

But that doesn’t mean smooth sailing. The protesters, Rottenstreich said, still plan to engage in peaceful civil disobedience Friday to protest the firing of dozens of workers who were laid off from two Old Town restaurants and several shops earlier this year when new management took over.

The controversy is rooted in the job losses of restaurant workers, janitors, store clerks and other employees who worked at Plaza del Pasado in Old Town, formerly known as Bazaar del Mundo.

The state runs Old Town Historic State Park and contracts with outside companies that manage restaurant and retail services.

A concessionaire contract negotiated between the state, local restaurateur Chuck Ross allowed him to avoid having to rehire 161 laid-off union employees when he took over the job of running the shopping area in March and temporarily shut down operations. The workers were laid off by the previous concession manager, the Delaware North company.

Two restaurants and shops have since reopened, and about 150 people have been hired.

About 100 of the laid-off workers applied to be rehired, and Ross gave jobs to 31 of them, said his spokeswoman, Julia Simms.

The union thinks all the laid-off workers should have been retained. “Most of our members have found it very difficult to find other work,” Rottenstreich said. “This mass firing was an injustice. I don’t think it’s fair to somebody who’s been at Old Town for 30 years to be shoved aside by someone who’s been there a week.”

If Ross had hired most of the former union workers, federal law would have required union representation to remain in place for the entire workforce, Rottenstreich said.

While the number of workers involved is fairly small, their plight has attracted the attention of local politicians from the national, state and city levels.

In a series of protests planned this week, Unite Here is expected to accuse Ross of union-busting and allege that the state failed to protect labor rights. State park representatives didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The shopping area had struggled financially for the last few years after the Delaware North company took over from a local businesswoman. Now, Ross is in charge after landing the concessionaire contract to run Plaza del Pasado, replacing Delaware North.

Ross temporarily closed two restaurants, Casa de Reyes and Jolly Boy Saloon, in March. Another venue, Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant, had closed earlier. Workers at the restaurants and shops lost their jobs during the transition.

Barra Barra Saloon, formerly Jolly Boy Saloon, and Casa de Reyes have now reopened after “rebranding and reconcepting,” Ross said. Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant remains closed as it undergoes renovations.

“Our main objective will be to turn this into something everybody is proud of again,” Ross said.

The restaurants and Plaza del Pasado shops have 150 employees, and the number may grow to 200. Ross’s spokeswoman, Simms, said 31 former workers were hired, including 30 restaurant workers.

“They interviewed everybody who applied for a job,” she said, adding another 14 former employees failed to show up for second interviews or job training.

In an interview conducted with the assistance of a union employee who served as translator, laid-off bartender Miguel Cerrezo said losing his job has “psychologically been damaging.”

“I feel like I’m being treated as if I’m useless, even though I’ve worked 30 years at Old Town,” said Cerrezo, 50. “We’ve had to battle just to put food on the table, and now I’m having a hard time paying back my daughter’s student loans.”

Ross said those who were rehired, along with new hires, are making wages equal or better than those of the past; the previous contract listed the minimum hourly pay for employees with a year of service as ranging from $8 to $12.75 in 2008.

But the union’s Rottenstreich said the real loss is the health-care benefits that the former employees received for themselves and their families.

“We should shoot for the highest standard of wages, benefits and fair treatment,” he said. “Just because corporations all around the country are cutting corners and taking away from workers doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t hold our public facilities to the highest standard.”

For his part, Ross has aggressively worked to make sure his side is heard. In a letter, he apologized to guests for the “loud noise or the intrusion” of union protesters, blamed Delaware North for the layoffs and wrote, “please let a manager know if you are harassed or intimidated in any way by these individuals.”

In an interview, Ross pointed to a petition distributed in January and signed by 70 union workers. It asked the union to “STOP all plans of protest, demonstrations and/or litigation” so that Ross’s company could smoothly begin operations.

(Rottenstreich said the petition wasn’t provided in Spanish to the workers, many of whom are Latinos. However, a copy of the petition provided by Simms does include alternative wording in Spanish.)

Both Ross and Unite Here are awaiting a ruling regarding an accusation of a labor law violation that the union filed with the federal government.

Unite Here, which represents 450,000 workers in the U.S. and 400,000 retirees, has problems of its own. The union is in the middle of what a Washington Post reporter called an “ugly unraveling,” pitting members against each other over a possible dissolution.

Rottenstreich said the union’s Local 30 is opposing efforts by the Service Employees International Union to siphon off Unite Here members.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that a contract with the state allowed Ross to lay off 161 union employees when he took over operations of Plaza del Pasado. In fact, the previous manager of the shopping area laid off the employees; the new contract allowed Ross to avoid having to rehire them. Also, the story referred to one of the restaurants, Casa de Reyes, as Fiesta de Reyes. The latter is the shopping area’s new name. We regret the errors.

Randy Dotinga is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact him directly at rdotinga@aol.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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