Workers at Bohemian Grove, one of the most elite and secretive clubs in the US, have filed a lawsuit alleging numerous unfair labor practices, including 16-hour workdays without breaks, and a failure to pay overtime and minimum wages to the workers.
Bohemian Grove, which attracts some of the world’s most powerful people to a mysterious gathering in the woods north of San Francisco, has long been the subject of fascination and conspiracy theories.
The lawsuit was brought by former valets who worked for several years at the club’s Monte Rio summer camp in Sonoma county, California. The secretive 2,700-acre camp near the Russian River has operated every summer for 150 years and is rumored to end in a ritual involving a human effigy and burning of a giant sacrificial owl.
The club was purportedly visited by the supreme court justice Clarence Thomas and billionaire donor Harlan Crow, and has been rumored over the years to be the site where Richard Nixon’s successful 1968 presidential election campaign was launched, and where J Robert Oppenheimer first discussed the Manhattan Project.
The club currently has a list of 2,600 active members and a sizable wait list. Members have included individuals such as Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Charles Schwab and several other powerful political and economic leaders around the world.
The lawsuit alleges about 100 separate camps that comprise the club each have one or more captains who violate numerous labor laws every summer. The complaint includes an allegation that Bohemian Grove treasurer, Bill Dawson, has personally directed valets to “falsify payroll records and to work off-the-clock”.
The lawsuit alleges valets were paid only eight hours despite working 16-plus hours a day without breaks for the duration of a 14-day summer camp.
Another allegation in the lawsuit claims a worker was directed to hide from a payroll employee when they made a surprise visit to the camp, as they were being paid under the table.
“We just want this to stop,” said a former valet at the camps, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the club or members.
The worker described members as obscenely wealthy, with private jets, million-dollar cars, $200,000 watches and homes on billionaire’s beach in Malibu. They said they would have to perform tasks beyond their job duties for some members, such as one instance where a billionaire member forgot to bring underwear to the camp and valets were asked to hand-wash it.
They explained over the years, the conditions, overworking and lack of pay for overtime, lack of breaks, would worsen despite promises to workers to do otherwise. Those promises, kind words from some of the very wealthy members, friendship with co-workers, kept them coming back year after year to the job, the worker added.
“It’s still going on, the payroll stuff, the unpaid overtime. The rates if the day is set, but even if you work 23.5 hours a day, your daily rate is your daily rate. This was all kind of conceived to save money, which is kind of comical,” the worker said, referring to the immense wealth members had.
They added: “The club really struggled hiring staff the last few years because they’re just not getting with the program of modern labor, modern food service labor where you have to pay a better wage.”
They argued the isolation of the camps and demanding environment amplified some of the typical poor working conditions in the restaurant and hospitality industry, because there is no internet, no cell service, and the pressure from the club to meet the demands of members and keep enticing new, very wealthy members into the club.
“All of these kind words and supposed good gestures were only available to me if I kept my mouth shut, and if I worked around the clock and didn’t complain, so I feel used,” the worker added. “I gave them a lot of good years.”
The lawsuit is seeking class-action status, affecting 300 employees who work outside of camps that use a staffing firm for hiring, and seek up to $1.5m in damages from the all-male club Bohemian Grove.
The plaintiffs claim the club and its partners had agreed to pay the remainder of what was owed to the workers, but never followed through in doing so.
Due to the secrecy of the club, the lawsuit refers to several defendants as “John Doe” because their names are unknown to the workers.
The lawsuit also alleges work rules imposed on the workers, such as restricting their ability to make phone calls from the camp, prohibiting workers from working in or visiting any camp where a blood relative is a member, prohibiting workers from accepting any tips, and prohibiting attendance by workers of any “rehearsals, plays, speeches, or any performances”.
A previous lawsuit was filed by former workers of Bohemian Grove over similar allegations between 2015 and 2019. A lawyer representing those workers said the court approved a settlement in that lawsuit in late 2021 of $3.535m.
In 2016, the Bohemian Club paid $7m in a similar case where wage theft was alleged. The Bohemian Club responded to the lawsuit claiming they should not be party to this action because the workers were not directly employed by the club.
“Although the Club has not been served with this lawsuit, we have reviewed the allegations and it is clear the claims appearing in the lawsuit are brought by individuals who were never employed by the Bohemian Club and therefore the Club should not be a party to this action,” said a spokesperson for the club and they denied allegations of wage theft.
Tony Nunes, the, attorney representing workers rejected the claim.
The lawsuit noted: “Plaintiffs believe that Defendant Bohemian Club will likely attempt to shield itself from legal liability by asserting that the camps operate autonomously. Nevertheless, the camps are not independent legal entities making their own hiring decision, but a part of a joint venture as designed by Bohemian Club.”