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They work at a luxury Wine Country hotel. Now, they're unionizing in hopes of living closer to it

Chase DiFeliciantonio

Mar 10, 2023

The San Francisco Chronicle published a story featuring the experiences of Fairmont Mission Inn workers who are trying to organize their workplace with UNITE HERE Local 2.

Tony Arguello stood at the end of a winding Wine Country lane nestled in the Boyes Hot Springs neighborhood not far outside the city of Sonoma, gazing at a tall iron gate that barred the way to the property where he once lived.

It is an idyllic spot, where an adjacent hillside is festooned with a small vineyard, and the sound of gurgling water from a creek breaks up the chirping of birds in the leaf-dappled sunlight.

A banquet bartender at the nearby upscale Sonoma Fairmont Mission Inn, Arguello leaned against his car. Dressed in his black work clothes for a shift that afternoon and evening, he smiled as he recalled fond memories of his time living in the area.But he hasn’t lived here for several years, since the property owners began to raise the rent from the $800 he was paying in 2015. “The rent was going up sometimes two or three times per year,” Arguello said. “It was stressful every time I would see a letter or note on the door.” 

Tony Arguello bought a home in Vallejo after he was priced out of Sonoma. He shares his home with tenants to be able to afford the mortgage.

These days he resides in Vallejo, where he’s recently had his car broken into and heard gunshots from the neighbor’s yard — a stark contrast to the “fog, rainbows and wild turkeys” in Sonoma.

Affordable housing can be scarce for many working people in Sonoma County, where more than half of the households are considered lower income — making less than 80% of the area median income of $112,800 a year for a family of four, according to Rhonda Coffman, the interim executive director of the Sonoma County Community Development Commission.

That’s to say nothing of the roughly quarter of the county’s population that makes between 81% to 150% of the area median income, and would also be eligible for subsidized housing, Coffman said in an email.

Arguello bought the home in Vallejo some years ago by saving his wages from multiple jobs, and he subsidizes the mortgage payments by living with roommates and making the hourlong drive to Sonoma for work, instead of the eight-minute bike ride through the Sonoma County sunshine from where he used to live.

In many ways it is another chapter in the already familiar story of Bay Area housing pressures for working people. But Arguello and other workers at the hotel have decided to try and do something about it by signing union cards, affiliating themselves with Unite Here Local 2 in hopes of bargaining for an increase in wages and other benefits that could help them live where they work, or at least closer to it.

Part of the goal is to increase wages for workers to bring them more in line with what the unionized workforce makes at the Fairmont San Francisco, Arguello said. He and others have signed cards but have yet to decide on a date to hold an election. For the time being they are rallying support among the workers and the community.

Workers at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa in Sonoma are considering unionizing to earn more money so they can afford to live in the city.

Housekeepers at the Sonoma Fairmont make $21 per hour, while those at the unionized Fairmont San Francisco make $28.10, Anand Singh, president of Unite Here Local 2, said in an emailed statement. He said dishwashers at the Sonoma hotel make $20 per hour while the workers in San Francisco make $28.62.

The union workers in San Francisco also have employer-provided platinum-tier medical, vision and dental insurance that can include their families for $10 a month. “People in Sonoma aren’t worth any less than people in San Francisco,” Singh said. “Their work is honorable, and they should be paid fairly.”

The Sonoma Fairmont did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

Further underscoring the housing pressure for low-income and working people, the ZIP code that includes the hotel and Arguello’s former home saw home values increase by more than 10% between January 2022 and the same month this year — more than almost any other in the Bay Area.

But would a union help working people like Arguello stay in the county?

One paper published by the UC Berkeley Labor Center found that it could help by increasing employee wages through collective bargaining.

That study found that in California, being in a union meant workers earned $5,800 more annually than non-unionized workers as of 2017. In the Bay Area it was slightly less, $5,300.

However, another study, by academics at Brigham Young University, found that union efforts decrease payroll and earnings at a workplace, with more experienced and better-paid workers more likely to leave and younger workers more likely to remain or stay.

Incremental wage increases might not solve the housing problems for working people in expensive areas like Sonoma, but coupled with other benefits like expanded childcare that unions like Unite Here have been able to wrangle from employers, it’s a step, Jacobs said.

“You’ve got the wage, and along with that is the family healthcare and other programs,” he said. “Do they solve all the housing problems? No. Would they make a real difference in allowing someone to live where they work or near where they work? Yes.”

Areas with high union penetration can also nudge employers to raise wages and benefits for nonunion workforces in an effort to deter union formation, Jacobs said.

Arguello said the company has given what he called meager wage increases to workers and offered other benefits like expanded healthcare to make the organizing drive seem less attractive and more unnecessary to workers.

The hotel did not respond to emailed questions about benefits or the union campaign.

Looking at recent history, building more housing in Wine Country, along with much of the rest of the Bay Area, has not been a fast or simple process. Attempts are often stymied or slowed by wildfire risks, recalcitrant neighbors or heightened environmental concerns.

“The unincorporated areas (of the county) have a really limited amount of buildable space,” said Bradley Dunn, policy manager for Permit Sonoma. Dunn said building is impossible in parts of the county that aren’t connected to the municipal water and sewer systems, and locations further out raise “concerns about sprawl and the effect of vehicle miles traveled on climate change.”

Coffman, of the county’s development commission, said access to public funding was the largest barrier to getting more housing built, along with factors like increasing costs of labor and supplies.

She pointed to the county’s Roseland Village development, which is planned to include 75 units of affordable housing, but where construction is on hold for want of more funding.

According to a draft of the county’s housing element, the plan to meet the state’s housing allocation goals, “Sonoma County’s share of the region’s future housing needs is 3,881 total units for the January 2023 through January 2031 planning period.”

For some workers at the Sonoma Fairmont, the stubborn housing status quo means making concessions.

Mario Granados and his daughter Mayra live together in Sonoma because he can't afford to have his own home in the city where he works.

Mario Granados has worked at the hotel for seven years in the kitchen as a dishwasher and part of the cleaning staff. He turns 67 in August and is trying to save for retirement, but he can’t afford a place of his own at the same time.

So he and his wife live with his daughter in a house she owns, also in the Boyes Hot Springs neighborhood. Granados said in Spanish, through a translator, that he makes about $21 an hour, and pays his daughter $700 in rent each month, down from the $950 he used to pay her along with covering some utilities and other bills.

“I told my daughter that I couldn’t afford to pay her that much because I’m getting older. I need to start saving money for the day that I can’t go to work,” he said. He said he saves money by walking to work, but the rising cost of gas and food is a constant concern and part of why he supports the union drive.

“Everything is really expensive, it really is a battle to live here,” Granados said.

Inside the hotel, that battle is not immediately evident. The hotel’s pink buildings surround a large courtyard, where a black SUV disgorged well-dressed visitors on a recent afternoon. 

Inside, under a wood-beamed ceiling, guests cradled glasses of wine next to a roaring fireplace. Nearby, the menu posted outside Santé, the hotel’s white tablecloth restaurant, offered specialties including a caviar appetizer and a 16-ounce Wagyu chateaubriand for two, for $149.

Along with the $16-$18 cocktails that Arguello, the union organizer, said he whips up during his bartending shifts, those prices are out of reach for the staff.

Both he and Granados have talked about going back to where they are originally from — Colorado for Arguello and Chihuahua state in Mexico for Granados — but their lives are here, and it’s a difficult decision.

“There is something special about the Bay Area,” and Sonoma County in particular, that makes him want to stay, Arguello said.

Still, he said he might have already gone back to his hometown of Lakewood, Colo., if not for how expensive housing has become there as well.

So Vallejo is what Arguello can afford. At least for now.


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