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Richmond hotel slapped with cease and desist for threatening striking workers

Workers at Radission Blu Vancouver Airport, formerly known as Pacific Gateway Hotel, have been on strike for three years.
Workers at Richmond’s Radisson Blu Vancouver Airport Hotel, formerly Pacific Gateway Hotel, have been on strike for three years.

A Richmond hotel has received a cease and desist order after it was found to have breached the Labour Relations Code again during a strike.

In a decision issued May 13, the B.C. Labour Relations Board found Sukhminder Rai, one of the owners of Radisson Blu Vancouver Airport Hotel and Marina on Cessna Drive, threatened or intimidated picketing employees and tried to bargain directly with them while excluding the union.

The complaint was filed by Unite Here Local 40, the union representing striking workers, but the employer denied any breaches.

At the two-day oral hearing held last September, Labour Relations Board member Gurleen Sahota heard from workers who claimed Rai offered to pay workers to retire, told workers there were no kitchen jobs anymore and made "insulting" and "threatening" comments during interactions between 2022 and 2023.

In particular, Sahota heard about housekeeper Pardeep Thandi's two interactions with Rai in 2023. On the first occasion, Thandi said Rai told her she played the plastic vuvuzela horn "very well" and invited her to play the horn at his daughter's wedding.

"Thandi testified that this comment was incredibly insulting given the cultural connotations of playing a horn at a wedding," wrote Sahota.

"She said that playing a horn at a wedding is a very shameful task for a woman to do in Punjabi culture and said that she could not express how much hurt that comment caused her."

Thandi also spoke of an interaction where Rai asked her where her horn was "because there was an audience for her" at a party he was hosting on the premises that evening, as well as another where he suggested she "sell samosay or hot dogs to make money."

In its complaint, the union alleged Thandi became "a special target of Rai's ire" because she had done press interviews and a press conference during the strike.

A maintenance worker, Ravinder Nijjer, testified about an interaction with Rai where Rai approached Nijjer at the picket line, where one of the striking workers was looking into the hotel with a pair of binoculars, and told Nijjer he "did not need binoculars to look inside."

"Nijjer said he told Rai to 'let them be' to which Rai replied with words to the effect of, '[Nijjer], the day after I settle, you know, I can fire you.' Nijjer said he asked if that was a threat to which Rai replied, 'No, I’m just saying,'" wrote Sahota. 

"Nijjer said he certainly perceived Rai’s comments as a threat and said that because Rai was the owner of the hotel, he could only assume Rai’s comments were true."

Owner says he was 'simply complimenting' employee about playing the horn

The hotel denied the union's allegations, arguing there was "no evidence that Rai threatened bargaining unit members to leave the union or attempted to compel or induce them to leave the union."

At the hearing, Rai, who was the employer's only witness, acknowledged he "talked to the picketers all the time" and "expressed his displeasure with employees making public statements about him, his company, and the strike on Punjabi radio stations."

He claimed he "never bargained directly with employees" and said he was "simply complimenting" Thandi during the two interactions.

"Rai also acknowledged that he was aware of the cultural connotations of playing a horn at a wedding, but he reiterated that he was simply complimenting Thandi and thought she would feel good about his comments. He denied knowing that she took offence or that there was any reason for her to take offence," reads the decision.

He also said he told kitchen staff on the picket line "on a weekly basis" that there were "no more jobs for them," claiming he was " being honest with his employees and that he did not think there was anything wrong with telling them the truth."

Although Rai claimed he could not recall the exact conversation with Nijjer, the hotel said his comment of "you know, I can fire you," was "not a direct threat to fire or terminate." Even if Nijjer took it as a threat, said the hotel, "Nijjer was experienced enough to know the protections a unionized work environment provides."

The hotel added Rai had clarified by saying "No, I'm just saying," when Nijjer asked him if it was a threat.

Employer to cease and desist from further breaches, orders Labour Relations Board

In his decision, Sahota found Rai was "attempting to dissuade the employees from continuing to picket and support the union" through his comments.

He accepted Nijjer's evidence that Rai did make the comment about firing him and found Rai was "in fact threatening Nijjer's employment" despite not telling him explicitly to quit the union.

As well, he rejected Rai's claim that he was complimenting Thandi's horn-playing, saying it was "not believable that he would sincerely want Thandi to play a plastic horn at his daughter's wedding."

"I have also considered Thandi’s testimony regarding the negative cultural connotations of playing a horn at a wedding, and in addition, when the horn was played during the hearing, it did not produce a pleasant sound," he wrote, concluding the comment was meant to intimidate Thandi.

Sahota explained while "tempers can flare and interactions can get heated during a strike," the Labour Relations Code outlines limits to what an employer can say or do. 

Although Thandi testified she "did not subjectively feel threatened by Rai's comments," Sahota considered the context of the "significant power imbalance" between Thandi and Rai, the owner, as well as Thandi's role as a member of the bargaining committee and a "vocal critic of the employer."

"Based on the particular facts of this case, I accept that in this context Rai’s comments were intended to pressure Thandi to leave the picket line and quit her job," he wrote.

Sahota also found that Rai made "problematic" comments to employees claiming the hotel no longer had a kitchen and there would be no more jobs for them, despite the fact that the hotel will continue to operate a "very small kitchen."

The comments were not completely true, he wrote, adding the employer's bargaining proposal in 2023 included some kitchen staff, and the comments were made to employees while they were on the picket line. 

Such comments amounted to intimidation, wrote Sahota, in the context of the frequency and manner they were made to picketing employees.

Sahota rejected the union's claim that Rai's request for employees to come inside and talk to him was an attempt to exclude the union from the bargaining.

However, he found Rai had offered retirement payment to an employee in 2022 before a bargaining proposal was made, concluding his offer "has the impact of dissuading (the employee) from continuing to picket, and instead, compelling her to retire and discontinue her union membership."

The cease and desist is the latest in a series of Labour Relations Board decisions against the Radisson Blu Vancouver Airport, formerly known as Pacific Gateway Hotel.

Striking workers recently held a rally to mark the third year of strike since they walked off the job in 2021 to protest the termination of 143 long-term staff.

Since the strike began, the hotel has been caught for scabbing on multiple occasions. In a decision issued in September 2023, the Labour Relations Board ordered the hotel to cease and desist from using scabs and to undergo random inspections.

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