The Real Scandal at the Oscars Was When Celebrities Crossed a Picket Line
Forget the Will Smith and Chris Rock altercation—hospitality workers got thrown under the bus when a host of Hollywood elites entered an Oscars night party at a hotel under union boycott.
While the world reacted to movie star Will Smith’s altercation with comedian Chris Rock at the 94th Academy Awards ceremony Sunday night, a different Oscars controversy was brewing — one centering on the struggles of hospitality workers at a hotel that caters to Hollywood elites.
Following the awards show in Los Angeles, rapper Jay-Z hosted a party at the Chateau Marmont hotel, where workers with UNITE HERE Local 11 have been leading a boycott since February 2021 amid allegations of rampant sexual misconduct, racial discrimination and union busting. The billionaire hip hop mogul refused to respond to the union’s requests that he honor the boycott by moving his party to a different venue.
“We hoped that Jay-Z would do the right thing and move his party. He had every opportunity to do so. But he made it clear what side he was on. He was not on the side of workers, of Black women, of justice for working people,” said Kurt Petersen, UNITE HERE Local 11 co-president.
Around 75 hotel workers and community allies held a lively picket outside the Chateau during the first two hours of the party Sunday night, from 11pm to 1am, surrounded by a heavy presence of private security and police.
Based on various reports, some celebrities who attended the party despite the highly publicized union boycott included: Rosario Dawson, Janelle Monáe, Zoë Kravitz, Timothée Chalamet, Michael B. Jordan, Rihanna, Emily Ratajkowski, Saweetie, Questlove, Daniel Kaluuya, Tiffany Haddish, Tyler Perry, Mindy Kaling, Jon Hamm, DJ Khaled and Kim Kardashian. In These Times reached out to their respective publicists for comment, but none responded. (This piece will be updated with any responses that come in.)
“It is disappointing and frustrating that Jay-Z, Michael B. Jordan, Rihanna, DJ Khaled, Zoë Kravitz and other Hollywood elites chose to prioritize their party and their fame over real people,” said Keisha Banks, former events server at the Chateau Marmont. “It might just be one party to them but these are people’s livelihoods.”
Many of the celebrities came under intense criticism on social media for crossing the picket line and being “scabs,” including Dawson and Ratajkowski, whose progressive politics and support for democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are well known.
Dawson tweeted on Tuesday that she arrived at the hotel after the picketers had gone home and therefore “didn’t cross a picket line.” She added that it was “disturbing to learn of the work conditions. I stand w/ the protesters & won’t go back till resolved. #unionrights.”
“We applaud Rosario Dawson for stepping up and committing not to go back. We believe she’s going to be the first of many,” Petersen told In These Times. “I have to believe that every single one of them knows they did something wrong.”
Several celebrities have endorsed the Chateau boycott and stayed away from the party, including Gabrielle Union, Issa Rae, Jane Fonda, Tom Morello, Adam McKay, Samira Wiley, Spike Lee, Robin Thede, Alfonso Cuarón, Amanda Seyfried, Steven Van Zandt, Ashley Nicole Black, Sarah Silverman, Martin Sheen and Edie Falco.
While filming his Oscar-nominated movie Being the Ricardos last April, writer-director Aaron Sorkin cancelled a planned shoot at the Chateau at the last minute after learning of the boycott. “Aaron Sorkin, the cast and crew of Being the Ricardos stand in solidarity with the Chateau Marmont’s workforce,” producer Todd Black said at the time.
“The story needs to be told about those who didn’t go in, those who stood by us,” Peterson explained, noting that many cars arriving at the Oscars party turned around and left after encountering the picket line.
He added that multiple Hollywood unions have also been supportive, including the Teamsters, Writers Guild of America-West, SAG-AFTRA and IATSE. SAG-AFTRA did not respond to a request for comment on its high-profile members who attended Jay-Z’s party at the Chateau.
The hotel has long held a reputation as a “playground” for its wealthy guests, where wild parties involving drug and alcohol abuse are almost encouraged through the tagline: “Always a safe haven.” The Chateau’s owner, famous hotelier André Balazs, has been accused of abusive treatment and sexual harassment by several employees, which he denies. Black and Latino workers have also accused managers of discrimination and using racial slurs.
The hotel’s management calls these allegations “meritless” and “unproven.”
In early 2020, workers at the Chateau began organizing with UNITE HERE Local 11 in the hopes of forming a union to change the hotel’s culture for the better. But in March of that year, Balazs terminated all 248 workers and cut off their health insurance, citing the Covid-19 pandemic as justification. Four months later, he announced that he was turning the Chateau into a members-only club and would not be rehiring the workforce.
Thanks to the union’s advocacy, in May 2020, Los Angeles passed legislation providing hospitality workers who were laid off during the pandemic the “right to return” to their jobs — including the Chateau employees. California passed a similar, statewide law in April 2021. But in an apparent attempt to stop the unionization drive in its tracks, Balazs and his management team have been slow to rehire the workers, only bringing back about 50 of them so far.
“Their strategy is to wait the workers out. They have purposely kept the occupancy of the hotel to 20 percent, they’ve kept the food and beverage basically shut,” Petersen explained. “They’re trying to outwait their workers and hoping workers will find other jobs, or leave the country, or die in some instances.”
The National Labor Relations Board recently found merit in a union charge that the Chateau’s management was illegally surveilling workers who were protesting outside the hotel.
Despite such anti-union tactics, Petersen says the workers are determined to get their jobs back, which is why they launched the boycott last February. “They’ve been inspired by the fight that they’ve been in,” he said. “They believe they deserve the right to go back, and that they can go back and win real changes in how that place operates through a union. Our boycott is steaming ahead. We’re hopeful that workers are going to win this fight, and we think more celebrities will be on their side.”
Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.