LOS ANGELES – A slew of stars from Ellen DeGeneres and Jay Leno to Sharon Osbourne and Richard Branson launched a boycott of the famed Beverly Hills Hotel early this year after it became know its owner, Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei, had authorized Shariah law in his Southeast Asian nation. Under the draconian law, adulterers and homosexuals can be stoned to death, and robbers and thieves can have their limbs amputated.
But there may be more to the Hollywood-heavy boycott than meets the eye, says a source very closely connected to the hotel.
“This isn’t just about LGBT rights,” the source told Fox411. “It’s about a union dispute.”
The Beverly Hills Hotel and its sister venue, Hotel Bel-Air, are among the few non-union hotels in Los Angeles, something that has long concerned the local hospitality union, UNITE HERE Local 11. The union’s website lists both properties on its “boycott” list. Local 11 has sought to unionize the hotel ever since the early ’90s, when it closed for renovations and reopened as a non-union workplace.
Early attempts to gain public and press attention to the union's cause were ineffective, but some six months after the sultan imposed Shariah law in Brunei, the news reached Ellen DeGeneres, who tweeted her disdain. Very soon after that, the hotel boycott went viral. UNITE HERE posts a number of links pertaining to the boycott on its website, including a BuzzFeed article that points out that the union had been trying to draw attention to the hotel’s controversial owner for a year before the boycott took off, but that almost nobody cared.
That was until celebrities got involved.
“Stories need a hook,” a rep for UNITE HERE Local 11 was quoted as saying in the Buzzfeed article.
According to its website, UNITE HERE Local 11 represents more than 20,000 workers in hotels, restaurants, airports, sports arenas and convention centers in Southern California, where it seeks to “fight for improved living standards and working conditions.”
The union, meanwhile, continues to focus on the Shariah Law issue and the sultan’s ownership of the Beverly Hills Hotel. It has posted links related to the controversy on its website and photos and updates on social media. It also organized a protest on July 31 at which hooded protesters showed raw footage of homosexuals being stoned.
The purpose, says the source, is to not so much to advance gay rights, or to shed light on the sultan, but to hurt the Beverly Hills Hotel, and get it unionized.
“The workers here are the best paid workers in the country for hotel employees,” the source said. “They have the best 401k plans and health insurance. As soon as we went non-union, everyone was better off. That’s what makes the unions crazy. They want those membership dues back.”
But not everyone agrees.
The push to unionize the Sultan-owned Los Angeles hotels was started by Unite 11 three years ago after the Bel-Air hotel re-opened, having closed for major renovations in 2009. It re-opened and dozens of former employees belonging to the union did not get their old jobs back after re-applying. Unite 11 organized a protest at the time, inviting Occupy L.A participants to join hotel employees in a march around the neighborhood.
The sultan, through the Brunei Investment Agency, owns the Dorchester Collection hotel chain, which operates 10 luxury hotels internationally. None of the other hotels have come under the same boycott marketing campaign. There appears to be no boycott of Hollywood films financed by the sultan’s son, Prince Azim Haji Bolkiah – who recently funded Hilary Swank’s “You’re Not You.”
Also noteworthy, the source said, is that the Beverly Hills Hotel was one of the first places to offer spousal benefits to same-sex couples before gay marriage became legal in the state of California. The hotel also HOSTS same-sex wedding ceremonies and promotes an array of special ceremony packages.
Representatives for the Dorchester Collection/ Beverly Hills Hotel declined to comment, and UNITE Local 11 did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
There could be another factor behind the boycott, the source said. It’s the involvement of DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, a former regular at the Beverly Hills Hotel who has been outspoken in keeping the celebrities out, and who the source said has been personally calling film industry leaders to insist that they stay elsewhere.
“For one, Lorne Michaels – who has been coming here for years and even supported us when the boycott began – was supposed to stay here during the Emmys, but he canceled a few days before because they got the call from Katzenberg,” said the hotel insider.
Katzenberg has also decided not to hold his annual Oscars “Night Before” party at the hotel next year.
But another thing raising eyebrows is that, according to our source, Katzenberg’s DreamWorks co-founder David Geffen tried to buy the hotel recently but was informed it was not for sale.
A rep for Katzenberg declined to comment, and a representative for Geffen said he could not be reached. A rep for Michaels did not respond to requests for comment.
In May, when the boycott was at its peak, the Beverly Hills City Council called a special meeting at which it urged the government of Brunei to divest itself from the hotel. But we’re told there’s no chance the Sultan – who is worth an estimated $20 billion – will let go of his Sunset Boulevard property any time in the immediate future.
And while rooms emptied out when the boycott began in May, it seems business now is almost back to normal.
“We’ve been busy with the non-Hollywood community and the tourists who are coming in telling us that it is a hypocritical boycott,” the insider said.
“These Hollywood types are boycotting the hotel and in turn only hurting local, hardworking employees while they’re pumping gas from Saudi Arabia.”
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