A handful of maids and janitors line up most weeks outside the gleaming Embassy Suites in Irvine to urge visitors to boycott the hotel.
But the workers aren't just protesting management — they are also targeting their union brothers and sisters. One of the hotel's largest investors is the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Assn., which manages $41 billion in pension funds for firefighters, sheriff's deputies and other union and nonunion workers.
Unite Here Local 11 is seeking to unionize 65 hotel workers and says Embassy Suites is trying to fire those who support the union. The hotel operator counters that Unite Here is trying to bully Embassy Suites into recognizing the union.
Maria Elena Durazo, L.A. County's labor boss, and Irvine Councilman Larry Agran are among critics who say the retirement system should quash the conflict or unload the investment.
"You are responsible for a multibillion-dollar union pension fund that has become heavily invested in an anti-union enterprise," Agran told the association's investment board at its meeting last month.
The pension fund has repeatedly rebuffed the union's pleas to step into the labor strife.
"We're a silent partner," said Gregg Rademacher, the fund's chief executive. "Our choices are to invest with them or sell."
The Irvine hotel was bought in 2010 by Cornerstone Real Estate Advisers, a subsidiary of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co., through its $454-million Chief II hotel fund. The Los Angeles County pension fund's investment board committed $150 million of employees' retirement money to the private equity fund, which owns nine other hotels.
Edward Siedle, the head of the Florida pension-consulting firm Benchmark Financial Services Inc., said that the county pension fund could use its influence as a major investor to end the Embassy Suites conflict.
"The argument that a billion-dollar institutional investor is helpless in the hands of Wall Street is preposterous," he said.
Rademacher said the retirement plan had done what it could.
"To the extent we have this perceived influence, we've exercised it," he said.
Other union pension funds are looking closely at their investments and finding interests at odds with their own. In April, the
Durazo said the labor conflict is hurting the Cornerstone hotel fund's performance. The union boycott, which has lasted 21/2 years, drove $2 million in hotel business elsewhere, according to a 2012 report commissioned by the union.
In 2011, the state labor commissioner upheld seven violations against Embassy Suites and its previous operator,
Cornerstone would not say whether the boycott had cost the hotel business, but said the labor charges were settled without admission of wrongdoing to avoid legal expense.
The union says working conditions grew worse after Cornerstone replaced HEI with Hostmark Hospitality Group a year ago.
Hostmark said it welcomed a union election.
"We firmly believe that the employees deserve the right to make this important decision for themselves," it said in a statement.
The union wants the decision made by card check, which would enable organizers to sign up supporters in their homes.
"The chance of a fair election has been completely corrupted by the hotel," Unite Here spokeswoman Leigh Shelton said.
The union says hotel management is targeting employees such as Argelia Rico, a 40-year-old housekeeper whose left arm is severed at the elbow. She changes as many as 25 beds a day for $11.90 an hour.
Rico's workload is twice as heavy as that of housekeepers at union hotels in L.A. County, and chronic supply shortages have her dashing up and down the hotel floors, unable to complete her work, she said.
Rico said she is on her final warning before firing. This summer, another union supporter was terminated.
"They're trying to shut me up," said Rico, who lives in an Anaheim trailer with her husband, a gardener, and three children.
A guest recently tipped Rico with a coupon, she said, walking over to fetch the bar-coded slip. It was for sausage, specifically, a single bratwurst.
"I need this job," Rico said, her eyes filling with tears. "It doesn't seem fair the firefighters' and police's money is being used against other workers."