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Why Workers Are Picketing Jay-Z’s Oscars Party, According to a Lead Organizer

Jay-Z and Beyoncé

Photo by Mike Coppola / Getty Images. Photos of protests at Chateau Marmont courtesy of UNITE HERE Local 11

When the hospitality industry capsized in the early days of the pandemic, Chateau Marmont, André Balazs’ illustrious West Hollywood hotel, fired nearly all of its employees. The hotel, which has long served as a hyper-exclusive, hedonistic playground for celebrities, dismissed its workers—many of whom had worked there for years—without severance, cut off their health insurance, and offered them no guarantee that they would be rehired when business picked back up. 

Those employees have been fighting for their jobs ever since, asking Marmont’s A-list clientele to boycott the hotel until they’re brought back on staff and management addresses a culture of sexual harassment and racial discrimination that, they allege, has plagued the hotel for years. (Workers told the Hollywood Reporter guests have touched them inappropriately and that a manager once referred to an employee as “my blackie,” among other allegations.) But earlier this week, news broke that Jay-Z and Beyoncé plan to host an Oscars afterparty at Chateau Marmont anyway.

They and the other celebrities who attend—which, in years past, have included Kim Kardashian, Leonardo DiCaprio, Drake, and Charlize Theron—will have to cross a picket line to get in. The Marmont’s former employees, joined by members of the hotel workers’ union UNITE HERE Local 11, will be demonstrating outside the hotel beginning at 8 PM on Sunday. Several celebrities and Hollywood writers have pledged to boycott the Marmont, including Spike Lee, Jane Fonda, Issa Rae, Gabrielle Union, and Quinta Brunson, among others. 

I called up Kurt Petersen, a co-president of UNITE HERE Local 11 who has helped organize workers at the Marmont, to talk about the game plan for Sunday and the long fight that has led Chateau Marmont’s workers to this moment. He’s holding out hope that Jay-Z and Beyoncé will decide to “do the right thing” and move their afterparty somewhere else. But as of now, he said, there’s no indication that will happen.

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VICE: Can you talk about the culture of sexual harassment and racial discrimination that allegedly exists at Chateau Marmont?

Kurt Petersen: The hotel’s culture has been built on the idea that anything goes. The guest can do anything he—and it’s mostly he—wants, and the guest is always right. That is, unfortunately, the motto of many hotel chains. But in this case, they encourage behavior that’s abusive, whether it’s abusive around racial harassment or sexual harassment. It makes Vegas look like Disneyland. And the consequences for employees is that not only do they have to tolerate misbehavior, but they’re often the objects and the victims of that behavior. This place stands out because that is what they sell. They don’t sell the building. They don’t sell the food. What they sell is that ethos: “Anything goes.” And that’s been the oxygen that has fed that place for the last 20 years.

A major inflection point in this fight was a huge round of layoffs during the pandemic. What happened?

It wasn’t a layoff. It was a mass termination. Those workers were fired. Many other hotels that underwent significant reduction of business laid their workers off with an expectation that they would return. The Chateau Marmont did not do that. They fired everyone and cut off their health insurance in the midst of the worst health crisis of the century, right when the pandemic began. They kicked people out in the street who not only worked for them, many of them had worked for decades for that hotel. 

There are other hotels that did this. There are other hotels who have tried to exploit the pandemic. But frankly, the Chateau Marmont takes the day. They were exceptional in the sense that they clearly sought to remake and restructure the workforce, and they saw the pandemic as an opportunity to do that.

What do you mean by “restructuring the workforce?” What was Chateau Marmont’s endgame?

I don’t know exactly what their endgame was. My guess is their endgame was that they wanted to do something new in the hotel, and perhaps get rid of the older, browner workers. Many of those employees who’ve been there for decades are Latino. There’s a trend in our industry to whiten the workforce. And so perhaps that was part of what they were trying to do: Getting rid of veteran workers, which would perhaps give them an opportunity to start anew. I don’t know exactly why they did it, but I do know that they went all in to get rid of their workforce, unlike everybody else.

Can you tell me about the organizing that workers at Chateau Marmont have done since that mass termination?

That’s the remarkable part of the story. These folks who were kicked out of the hotel, on the streets, with no insurance, led a fight to win the right to return to work law not only in the city of Los Angeles but in the state of California. These laws require hospitality employers to rehire workers who previously worked at their hotel before the pandemic. The Chateau Marmont workers were key leaders in that fight. That law, I would argue, has proven to be the most effective, consequential law for working people since I’ve been organizing. The minute that law came into effect, many hotels started returning workers back to work who were incumbent workers. It really had an immediate impact. 

Chateau Marmont took a different tack. They have purposely kept the hotel at very low occupancy with the sole purpose, I believe, of hoping that those workers who used to work at the hotel will run out of energy and run out of desire to return to the hotel. Contrary to every hotel that I’m aware of in LA, which has opened up and wants business, these guys have kept it at 20 percent, because they don’t want their workers back. 

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As you’ve described it, Chateau Marmont’s strategy seems to be to wear down these workers in the hopes that they’ll just give up and go away. Is it working?

It’s been two years now since the pandemic began. Some people have unfortunately passed away. One of our key leaders from the Chateau Marmont, who was at the picket line every single time beating the drum, passed away from COVID. Others have had other things in their lives that have made them make other choices. Some have gotten jobs in union hotels, and they’re very satisfied. But there are a whole bunch of workers, including those workers at union hotels, that given the opportunity to go back and change that place, want to go back. So there’s a group that is waiting for that call to return. Our folks want to go back because they think that the only way to change that place is to get back in there, voice their concerns, and make sure that this hotel has a different way of operating.

Can you talk me through everything that workers at Chateau Marmont are asking for from management?

Wages and benefits were low, so normal economic stuff. But really what it’s about is a shift in the culture of that hotel. Yes, the guest is right, but so are employees. When something bad happens inside there, the voice of employees needs to be taken seriously. And moreover, management needs to stop encouraging inappropriate, repulsive, bankrupt behavior that has a deleterious effect on workers. That’s really what people are fighting about. Yeah, it’s about getting your job back. But it’s also about winning your dignity, and demonstrating that you’re not going to walk away when someone decides to take away your livelihood. Those workers are determined. They’re determined to go back in and get their jobs, and they’re determined to change the way this place operates.

What kind of actions have Chateau Marmont workers taken to uphold and enforce this boycott so far? 

We’ve had dozens of actions outside that property, ranging from picket lines, to memorials for people who have passed during [the pandemic], to dance parties. We’ve had press conferences attended by elected leaders and religious leaders, particularly from the Black clergy, because there have been two lawsuits filed around racial discrimination. So it’s been a nonstop run of activity outside that hotel to let the hotel know, and the community know, that we’re not going away.

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Has the Marmont been actively hostile to these workers’ attempts to organize? 

Their goal is to remove those who they perceive as leading the effort to organize. They have apparently talked to a few workers who have returned about how bad unions are. So they’re doing these captive-audience meetings and telling workers that the union is a mistake. They’re doing the things that Starbucks is doing around the country. That’s what’s going on at Chateau Marmont.

I also read that management was surveilling workers’ organizing activities. Could you speak to that? 

We filed a charge around surveillance, and the [National Labor Relations] Board found merit to it. The hotel was monitoring who was participating in the actions by standing outside and watching people, intimidating them, and trying to make them less likely to participate. When a manager stands outside and looks at them and says, “I see you”—which is what they’re basically saying—that worker has to take a second to think, Well, gee whiz, is this going to make it harder for me to go back? And it may. But that demonstrates these workers’ courage. 

During the boycott, has the Marmont passed over former employees and hired outside workers to replace them, or are they mostly just keeping occupancy low to avoid rehiring former employees? 

It’s mainly keeping the place low-occupancy in order to win a war of attrition with their workers. We do think there are violations of the recall law. I believe they’ve subcontracted work out to avoid workers coming back as well, which we think is illegal. They’re trying everything they can to keep those workers from coming back. 

Jay-Z is, obviously, planning on hosting his Oscars afterparty at the Marmont on Sunday. What message does that send?

Jay-Z is not only a celebrity, he’s often been a leader on important causes. Our workers hope that he would follow many other celebrities who, when faced with this choice of “do I go in or not,” decided the right thing to do is to stand with the workers. They’re hoping that Jay-Z is going to do the right thing. There are a thousand bars that are open at that time on Sunday night that he could avail himself of. It would be very unfortunate, and frankly disappointing, if he crossed that picket line.

Has Unite Here Local 11 actually spoken with Jay-Z or his representatives about changing the venue?

We delivered a letter to one of his businesses asking him to move, and we have offered to help place his event in another venue. There are two hotels down the street, the One Hotel in West Hollywood and the Andaz West Hollywood, that returned their workers to work, where workers have a voice. And I’m sure both of those venues, for example, would be happy to host this party.

Do you have any sense of how likely it might be that Jay Z would change the venue?

I can only hope that he will do the right thing when he learns about the situation. Sometimes these celebrities hear from assistants and publicists and what have you that everything is OK; we’ve run into that several times at the Chateau Marmont. Every time that happens, though, when the celebrity hears that “No, this is a problem,” they’ve decided to stay away. And we’re hopeful that the same will happen when Jay-Z understands the situation.

Let’s say he decides to go ahead with the afterparty. When celebrities show up to attend it, are they going to have to literally, physically cross a picket line to get in?

Assuming we know how they’re entering, yes. We will have a picket line at the entrances of the hotel, and they will have to cross it to get in.

What else do you have planned for Sunday night?

We’re going to make it a dance party. We’re gonna have music, we’re gonna have dancing, we’re gonna have chanting, we’re gonna have cheering, we’re gonna have picketing. It’s going to be quite festive.

Chateau Marmont has operated under that “anything goes” ethos for decades, and André Balazs has held to his principles for just as long. Do you think Chateau Marmont and Balazs would be willing to make the changes these workers are asking of them?

Look, we’ve had many struggles with employers who said “never,” or who acted in a way that was problematic. I think these campaigns are transformative, both for workers and for managers and owners. Some of the most respectful relationships, honestly, have come out of struggles. So I am hopeful that André will also learn and be changed through this experience. 

Drew Schwartz is a staff writer at VICE. Follow him on Twitter.




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