Pleasanton Weekly

News - February 19, 2010

Union, Castlewood continuing negotiations to resolve contract dispute

Hike in employee health care premiums appears major hurdle blocking settlement

by Jeb Bing

The union that represents an estimated 57 part-time and full-time hourly workers at Castlewood Country Club and Castlewood General Manager Jerry Jordan and his negotiating team resumed negotiations this week over a new three-year contract that the union earlier rejected.

The two sides called for a "cooling off period," avoiding a lockout that was scheduled to start Tuesday morning.

"While no collective bargaining agreement has been agreed to, some progress was made during negotiations Monday," said Nischit Hegde, a representative of Unite Here! Local 2850, the large Bay Area hotel and restaurant workers union that also covers Castlewood's unionized workforce of bartenders, kitchen helpers, waiters and other hourly employees.

"The lockout called by the Castlewood Country Club has been avoided and both parties have agreed to continue negotiating," she added. "There will be no action taken by the Unite Here! Local 2850 on Tuesday, February 16th at 8 a.m. (as scheduled)."

The union had planned to picket the country club Tuesday after it rejected what the country club called its final contract offer, which included a wage freeze and, for the first time, employee contributions to their own health plans for coverage beyond the individual employee.

Castlewood General Manager Jerry Olson has not returned phone calls from the Pleasanton Weekly seeking management's side of the argument.

The union's three-year contract with Castlewood expired in July 2008, but was extended by the club for another year. Despite numerous meetings between union representatives and Castlewood management, the two sides could not agree on a new contract, leading to management's decision to block employees from their jobs until the union signs the contract the club has imposed.

At last report, management and union representatives were scheduled to meet again yesterday.

"At the Castlewood Country Club in Pleasanton, members pay a $25,000 initiation fee and $600 monthly membership fee to play on landscaped golf courses and sip wine in a gourmet dining room while the club's cooks, waiters, dishwashers and housekeepers work hard to serve them," Hegde said. "Now the club's managers (want to) push through a contract proposal that would make health care unaffordable for workers' families."

A union press release issued Monday also quoted a union member's concern over the lockout:

"I am very scared of the company's proposal because our family is very dependent on the medical insurance we receive from the company," Carlos Hernandez, a five-year dinner cook at the club was quoted as saying. "My wife had her gallbladder removed two weeks ago and without the surgery, I do not know what she would have done. If I had to pay $739 a month for family medical insurance (as the club's new contract specifies), I would not be able to afford it and my wife and two children would lose coverage."

Hegde said Hernandez and his family are among the 57 dependents that would potentially lose their health coverage due to Castlewood's proposal.

However, 20 of the 57 members are employees with only single-rate health care plans. Castlewood has said it will continue covering workers in this category free of charge.

Hegde said Unite Here! Local 2850 workers have been negotiating with the company since last September and have offered management a reasonable contract proposal that would, according to Local 2850's calculations, reduce labor costs for the company by approximately 8 percent in the first year, including a one-year wage freeze, an "extremely modest wage increase (just 10 cents an hour)" for the following year and an increase in worker's monthly insurance premiums for a cheaper plan with fewer benefits.

Hegde said the union has also filed an unfair labor practice charge against the club with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging intimidation. The claim states that Castlewood "has tried to scare its employees into quitting their jobs."

"Workers are scared," Hegde said.

She said one worker, Petra Medina, a Castlewood maintenance worker, told her that club managers said "that if we didn't accept the company's proposal, we will all be locked out."

"Nobody wants to let the club take away our families' health care, but a lot of my co-workers are terrified of ending up without a job in this economy if we fight back," Medina added.

But Steve Frietas, who's been a bartender at Castlewood for the last 16 years and was the union's shop steward for 10 years, said he talked management into backing away from a pay cut that it had initially proposed. Wages would still be frozen for the year, but would stay the same. Management also agreed to wage increases of 10 cents an hour in the second year, 30 cents in the third year of a new three-year contract.

He also said that although new health care premiums would increase according to the schedule, as they already have for the nonunion employees, Castlewood agreed to kick in $40 a month for couples and $80 a month for families for the Local 2850. Management also agreed to lower to 28 hours the work week required to qualify for Castlewood-sponsored health care from the 32 hours it had proposed, which meant more part-time employees would continue to be eligible for the benefit.

Frietas told the Pleasanton Weekly that 34 of the union's 57 members have signed petitions he has distributed calling on Unite Here! Local 2850 to accept Castlewood's contract offer.

"These workers don't want to go on strike," Frietas said Wednesday. "They are willing to accept the club's contract offer in order to keep their jobs. Even if they find they can't afford the higher heath care premiums, they could continue working while they look for other jobs that offer more money or less expensive benefits, or both."

But he said he was rebuffed in his appeal to union leaders to sign the contract offer and that union leaders have now kicked him off their negotiating team.

Frietas, a Vietnam veteran with two Purple Hearts, added: "I'll be 62 next month and I've been at Castlewood for 16 years. This is a country club, not a hotel or big restaurant where employee relations can be strained. We're like family here. We don't want to be unemployed; we don't want to be locked out without income for two or three months. Our union leaders should listen to us, too."

Castlewood is reportedly facing an operating budget shortfall and has tightened its benefits policies for both union and non-union employees. Sources reported that up to 70 memberships were canceled in recent weeks as members find themselves squeezed by the current economic downturn.

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