Union plans to post pickets this morning as Castlewood locks out hourly workers in contract dispute

Hike in employee health care premiums appears major hurdle blocking settlement

Castlewood Country Club plans to lock out unionized part-time and full-time hourly workers today after their union refused the club's final contract offer that calls for a wage freeze and, for the first time, employee contributions to their health plan for coverage beyond the individual employee.

Union members said they will organize picket lines with signs and banners to protest the lockout and alert the public to the labor strife. The demonstrations will start at 8 a.m. today near the clubhouse or, if the club bars the labor action on its property, at Castlewood Drive and Foothill Road.

The lockout was announced by 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.

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.

"Castlewood Country Club has announced it will lock out 60 food and beverage workers, including cooks, servers, and dishwashers, on Tuesday morning unless they accept the club's proposal to make family medical so expensive that many will be forced to drop their dependents from coverage," Hegde said.

"Thus, workers and allies will stage a picket on Tuesday morning to protest the company's unjust actions," she added. "If the club will not allow protestors to picket directly in front of the club's main building, protestors will be forced to the nearest public road where many (Castlewood) residents will be faced with crossing the picket line just to get to and from their homes."

"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 added. "Now the club's managers are locking those workers out in an effort to push through a contract proposal that would make health care unaffordable for workers' families."

The 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 67 dependents that would potentially lose their health coverage due to Castlewood's proposal.

She 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.

Besides posting pickets, 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 said.

But Steve Frietas, who's been a bartender at Castlewood for the last 12 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 contact.

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.

Fietaas told the Pleasanton Weekly that he polled union workers at Castlewood and found that a majority do not want to go on strike. 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, Frietas says 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.

Frietas, a Vietnam veteran with two Purple Hearts, added: "I'll be 62 next month and I've been at Castlewood for 12 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."

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