Nestled at the foot of mansion-studded hills, just north of Los Angeles’ legendary Sunset Boulevard, the seven-story Chateau Marmont has been a mainstay of Hollywood socializing for nearly a century – including in recent years, the venue for Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s ultra-exclusive post-Oscars bash.
But the storied Hollywood playground has become a rallying point for a growing labor movement, and this Sunday, scores of Chateau Marmont workers, alleging longstanding rights violations and discrimination by their employer, plan to protest outside the Academy Awards afterparty. That means the Carters and their star-studded guestlist will have to choose whether to cross a picket line to get in.
“Hopefully our presence will educate people that they need to go somewhere else,” said Kurt Petersen, the co-president of Unite Here Local 11, a union supporting the service staff, who are not unionized. “This hotel should not be seen any more as the go-to spot in Hollywood until they change the way they treat workers. We’re in a moment in our history where people need to decide which side they are on.
“That’s the question everyone needs to ask themselves, including Jay-Z.”
A pseudo-European castle, Chateau Marmont has long been a favorite retreat for some of America’s most celebrated cultural figures. Built in 1929 by a Los Angeles attorney and originally intended as a top-flight apartment building for wealthy New Yorkers moving West, the Chateau was converted into a hotel after the Great Depression and has cultivated an air of exclusivity ever since.
Luminaries from F Scott Fitzgerald to Sofia Coppola have produced work at the building, and the hotel has made countless appearances in popular music, film and literature, including references in songs by the Grateful Dead, Miley Cyrus and Lana Del Rey. Since 1990, the hotel has been run by André Balazs, an elite hotelier and celebrity in his own right, known for his romantic relationships with A-listers. All these associations with stars have only added to the hotel’s premier reputation over the years.
That’s all changing now. Since last February, the Chateau’s staff – some of whom have worked at the hotel for decades – have led a fierce boycott that has drawn the support of Hollywood figures including Jane Fonda, Spike Lee, Issa Rae, Gabrielle Union, Samara Wiley, Robin Thede, Ashley Nicole Black and Alfonso Cuarón. Director Aaron Sorkin scrapped a shoot at the hotel for Being the Ricardos; Paramount Plus series The Offer also pulled out of filming there.
It’s a dramatic fall from grace for the hotel’s management. In an emailed statement, a spokesperson accused the union of trying to “damage the Chateau Marmont” by orchestrating protests using “paid agitators … most of whom are not former employees and have no connections to the non-union Chateau Marmont”.
But the movement has been a vital boost for the workers, whose discontent runs deep over what they have called a toxic environment.
Bias appeared to be rife at the hotel. Darker-skinned employees have said they were subjected to racist remarks and passed over for promotions. According to an investigation by the Hollywood Reporter, the Chateau’s managing director, Amanda Grandinetti, referred to one staff member as a “blackie”, and told another that they should respond to her by saying “Yes, Amassa,” apparently in reference to a slave master. In a lawsuit filed against the Chateau last year, April Blackwell, a black woman who worked at the Chateau, said Grandinetti fired her after she complained about a pattern of racist abuse from guests.
Grandinetti did not respond to the Guardian’s requests for comment, but she previously acknowledged to the Hollywood Reporter that she “could have advocated more quickly for [her] team”.
The Chateau’s female employees have said they were subjected to frequent sexual harassment. Workers painted a grim portrait of Balazs, alleging that the owner would get drunk on the premises and grope female workers – an accusation Balazs has denied. Management also failed to take action when guests touched female employees without their consent, workers alleged.
The hotel’s spokesperson said, “These meritless allegations are all unproven for one simple reason: they were manufactured in lawsuits bought and paid for by Unite Here Local 11 as part of their targeted efforts to unionize Chateau Marmont. Contrary to the bogus claims in these already-dismissed, union-backed sham filings, Chateau Marmont has a long and well-documented history of diversity and inclusion among both our employees and our guests.”
Things came to a head in 2020. Just before the pandemic hit, Chateau staff approached Unite Here to discuss how they could push for better working conditions, Petersen, the union organizer, said. That effort was shattered in mid-March, as the coronavirus began to spread, when the Chateau’s management abruptly laid off the vast majority of its staff – 248 people – with no severance or extended health insurance.
One of those workers was Alejandro Roldan, a 35-year-old full-time housekeeper, who told the Guardian he was making just over $14 an hour at the Chateau before he lost his job, and with it, his health insurance. Then he caught Covid – and decided against a costly hospital visit. But then his symptoms became severe. “I was afraid I was going to die,” he said.
It was a blow on top of a workplace accident he suffered just over a month before the layoff, when he was setting up for Jay-Z’s last Oscars party and a glass coffee table shattered, sending shards into his eyes. He made a full recovery, but was hit with more hospital bills, which his employer didn’t help cover. “I was frustrated,” he said. “I was like, I’m losing my vision for someone that doesn’t even support us.”
That July, Balazs announced he was reorganizing the property as a members-only club, and would not hire back most of the staff.
“It was the best union-busting campaign ever,” Petersen said. “Just fire all the workers and make sure that none of the ones who were standing up for their rights come back to work.” When Roldan and other workers began to protest, members of the Chateau’s management responded by showing up to film and warn them, “we’re watching you.”
But the Chateau’s staff pressed on. In May 2020, the hotel workers and Unite Here 11 won the passage of a “right of recall” ordinance in Los Angeles, requiring employers to hire back workers laid off during the pandemic instead of replacing them with new ones. A similar statewide law was passed the following year.
In January 2022, the National Labor Relations Board found that Chateau Marmont had illegally surveilled its laid-off workers at protests, in order to disrupt their efforts to organize. The federal labor board negotiated a settlement with the Marmont, requiring that the hotel respect workers’ labor rights and cease its interference with worker organizing.
Petersen sees the victories as part of a broader strengthening of labor solidarity between Hollywood’s entertainment and hospitality industries in the wake of the pandemic. “We wouldn’t have this boycott without the solidarity from actors, or from Sag-Aftra, from the Iatse [International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees], from the Teamsters, who have been extraordinary,” he told the Guardian. “Both of our industries suffered tremendous losses during this time in terms of business. Those unions and those members have stood by us.”
But Chateau’s workers’ demands are still far from met. They want their jobs back, and they want clear commitments from Chateau Marmont’s management that it will reform its workplace environment. And they want to form a union, so that they’ll no longer have to feel “alone”, said Roldan.
The Chateau Marmont spokesperson said that the hotel had hired more than 50 former employees under the new ordinance, and said the union’s protests had “slowed the process of rehiring former workers”. But Petersen believes that it’s the hotel that’s “slowed the reopening purposely to wear down folks and their willingness to go back”.
This Sunday, Roldan will be among the workers picketing Jay-Z’s party. The former housekeeper is still thinking about the injury he suffered at the rapper’s last event.
“I just want Jay-Z to support us,” said Roldan. “Every time they go to the hotel, we serve them, we get whatever they want and we’re there for them. So they have to be there for us.”
Representatives at Roc Nation, Jay-Z’s company, did not return the Guardian’s request for comment.