Progressives and Picket Lines

The story was very different, depending who told it.

To the organizers of the two affordable housing conferences I attended a few weeks ago, news that the Seattle Olive 8 hotel was under boycott by the hotel workers union for refusing to allow workers the choice to unionize came out of the blue. It was too soon before the event to allow them to do anything about it. Even if they could have found another venue (and they looked), their member groups and attendees, many low-income, would have lost money in the transition, and the contract provisions meant the hotel wouldn’t have actually lost money with a move anyway.

When union representatives called individual speakers at these conferences to ask them to not attend if the events went forward, some speakers reportedly offered to wear buttons or other shows of support instead, but the union representatives remained firm that they were calling for an honoring of the boycott. Having their loyalty questioned clearly frustrated some of the participants.

But the story from the union side rang a little differently.

Levi Pine, UNITE HERE organizer, says he understands the difficult position groups can be in if they discover a labor action after the fact—it’s one of the reasons UNITE HERE is supporting a Fair Hotels(like “fair trade”) campaign that will make it much easier to be informed about the labor status of hotels and meeting venues.

But, he says, they can’t make boycott exceptions for friends, even ones willing to wear buttons in solidarity. “That’s a common reaction,” says Pine, but “if we give someone a pass, everyone gets a pass. It’s especially damaging when a good organization wants to bargain about not honoring the boycott. Then how can I ask Microsoft to boycott?”

UNITE HERE just won a massive agreement to allow workers to unionize with the Hyatt Corporation more broadly—the two Hyatts currently being boycotted in Seattle are under private ownership, with an owner who is declining to participate in the larger agreement. “The only reason we had a successful resolution with the whole Hyatt chain,” says Pine, “is so many nonprofits said ‘It is not feasible for us to be seen at the Hyatt and we’re willing to make a sacrifice for that.’”

(As for cancellation fees, he notes one group of civil-rights clergy who moved their meeting out of a Hyatt in Chicago during the larger campaign essentially dared the hotel to charge them the cancellation fee. The hotel declined to test them.)

Though it’s a natural and usually well-meant impulse, the problem with offers of alternative forms of support is fairly fundamental, says Pine: “The whole point of workers organizing is for us to be able to determine what . . . the terms of our lives should be. We’re really used to everyone from hotel owners to politicians telling us . . . ‘Let me tell you what you really need. . . . You don’t really want what you think you want.’”

The labor movement is changing. Over the past many decades, private sector labor unions have declined; they now represent a mere 11.3 percent of U.S. workers. Many people’s image of labor right now is of trade unions or teachers’ unions and other public employees unions: established groups carrying out—sometimes well, sometimes poorly—the role of negotiating on behalf of their members, well enough that their members are much better off than much of the workforce.

But in the low-wage service sector, things are looking a bit more like the original conditions that gave rise to the labor movement—long and inconsistent hours, forced over time, unsafe working conditions, pay well below living wages, corporations making a massive profit, and no voice for the people creating that value.

And these sectors are starting to more actively organize. UNITE HERE is growing. So are groups like Domestic Workers UnitedWalmart strikes on Black Friday are becoming a tradition, and today, fast food workers plan to follow up their September strike with another one calling for $15/hr wages. Bikeshare workers are trying to organize.

It may be a little uncomfortable for many in the progressive and nonprofit worlds to get used to talking about solidarity again, not just collaboration and advocacy. But the rise of service worker labor organizing means it’s essential; if we really mean that we support economic justice and shifting the balance of power in the workplace, it’s time to start getting used to the idea of supporting a campaign to give low-wage workers more power, not just to give them what we think they need.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Dec. 4, 2014.)

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