SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – A federal judge appeared inclined to toss a lawsuit brought by workers at the Hotel Marriott who claim the company failed to pay them overtime wages mandated by a local ordinance.
“My focus is on the administrative component,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins said at a hearing Wednesday afternoon. “The defense says there was a failure to file a CBA agreement and I’d like you to tell me why I should discount that argument.”
Plaintiff Ian McCray sued the Marriott Hotel Services seeking to strike a collective bargaining agreement between the company and the hotel workers’ union that set the minimum wage at a slightly lower rate than the San Jose City Council-approved minimum wage.
Marriott says the San Jose minimum wage ordinances contain a provision that explicitly allows a waiver for collective bargaining agreements. In other words, if a company and a union agree on a wage, the company doesn’t have to adhere to the minimum-wage requirements set forth by the city.
“The city’s agency charged with issuing binding interpretation of the ordinance has consistently interpreted the ordinance to provide for a CBA opt-out,” Marriott says in its motion for summary judgment.
McCray argues Marriott’s interpretation of the local ordinance is overly broad, insisting that the language of the ordinance only grants a waiver when it is required by federal law, which is not the case in the present instance.
“Defendants ask the court to construe the opt-out provision in a manner that defies the rules of statutory interpretation,” McCray’s attorney Ian Kass said.
The minimum wage fight has large implications for the labor movement in general, which has focused on raising wages for the working poor as one of its central tools to combat inequality.
Several cities in California, including San Jose, San Francisco and Los Angeles, have adopted ordinances that raise the minimum wage to $15, typically in increments of about $1.50 per year.
However, most of these cities have included provisions that waive collective bargaining agreements. Critics dismiss these waivers as a cynical attempt by labor unions to render themselves the low-cost option in cities, thereby driving up membership and increasing dues.
But some believe the unions are exploiting the workers they claim to represent by allowing them to paid less than the going rate. Others argue more work for union members can only be beneficial and could make unionization more acceptable to the business community.
Specific to Wednesday’s hearing, Cousins was less concerned with the overarching theories and more concerned with whether McCray’s failure to file a grievance through the CBA process renders the lawsuit moot.
Kass said since the lawsuit hinges on an interpretation of local statute, the CBA grievance process is irrelevant.
“The argument ignores the scope of the grievance process,” Kass told Cousins.
Marriott says even if the case is handled in the way McCray wants, there are statute of limitations problems that warrant summary judgment.
Cousins is expected to rule in the next couple weeks.