Left Behinds

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

"UNITE HERE's Fight Of Their Life"

Late last week, I read this brief article about the major contract push the hotel worker's union UNITE HERE will be undertaking this summer. (Nathan Newman, the author, continues to blog on it here. And here's the campaign Web site, should you be moved to get involved.) I don't know nearly enough about labor strategy to be able to say anything intelligent about this, but it seemed to me like a pretty big deal, and fortunately I do know some people who know some things. So I wrote them and asked for their thoughts, and today got back a thoughtful, detailed response from Coco Seven Mile [name redacted upon request] who used to do research for HERE.

UNITE HERE will be fighting above all for something called "card-check neutrality." If you don't know what that is, check out this explanation.

In a nutshell, this is UNITE HERE's Fight Of Their Life. At least for the HERE side of the recently-merged union. This is the fight they've been building to for the past four years. In late 2002 (or thereabouts), the union decided that they couldn't keep dealing with their industry in the traditional manner. By way of contrasting example, let's take a parenthetical look at the supermarket fight of 2004: the UFCW had dozens of contracts all over the country with the same small handful of companies. These contracts were negotiated locally, even though the employers were national. What happened? The union had no national strategy, and the first round of the fight was in Southern California. The employers demanded big givebacks & concessions, and the union struck, yielding the longest supermarket strike in US history. After four months on strike, the unions went back to work, essentially accepting defeat. The stores created a two-tier system for wages and benefits (a two-tier system not only saves the employers money, but significantly erodes any long-term prospects for union survival, by pitting workers against each other. This was also at the heart of the recent subway strike in NYC.), and set the standard for the rest of the negotiations around the country. Why did the strike fail, despite better-than-expected worker participation and community support? Most experts lay the blame at the union's lack of a national strategy. That is, despite the fact that the companies are national, the union approached negotiations at the traditional, local level.

This is the story to keep in mind when thinking about why UNITE HERE is putting up a big fight over a seemingly small, structural point, rather than about concrete things like wages or benefits. The union recognized that if they are ever going to have a significant impact on the lives and working conditions of hotel workers at a scale bigger than the one they currently have (which is to say, in a few isolated, though important markets), they would need to approach the companies nationally. This is called coordinated bargaining, and is why, say, the UAW has amazing contracts--they don't bargain plant by plant. So they set about first trying to coordinate the end dates of a smattering of contracts. This took place between late 2002 and late 2004, and was mostly successful. Here in LA, for instance, there were big actions, civil disobedience (yours truly got arrested), and a brief srtike. The issue? A shorter than usual contract. Not a sexy issue, to be sure, but getting a contract to expire in 2006 was key to the union's plan. Up in San Francisco, the hotels refused to agree, so the union has simply worked without a contract for two years, so important was it to have an open contract in 2006.

So here we are in 2006, with most of the pieces in place: all of the union's key markets (DC, LA, SF, Chicago, Hawaii, etc., etc.) have contracts expiring this year. So what? So the union has the potential to call essentially a nationwide strike, something never before possible. The union is finally able to deal with their (national) employers on a national level. Everything up until now was all about setting the table.

So now the table is set, the public campaign is gearing up, and negotiations are getting going. What's the ask? Card-check neutrality. I won't get into the issue of why the "standard" method for unionizing workforces is bogus, but suffice it to say that it is: the so-called secret ballot method employed by the National Labor Relations Board is open to massive amounts of employer abuse & manipulation. Workers benefit when employers agree to stay out of the way. And, believe it or not, employers will agree, when they have to. Look at Las Vegas in 1987. The union was down to 18,000 members, having been crippled by a 1984 strike. It dealt with companies separately. Then the union took a high-risk strategy: it would strike the entire city with a simple demand: card check neutrality. The union won the fight, and as Vegas boomed over the next decade, the union was able to add members without the dozens of individual fights that would have otherwise been required. Now the union represents some 60,000 workers, and is widely recognized as providing the best conditions for service sector workers in the country.

So these are the stakes. If the union is able to pull this off, we could see massive unionization of hotel workers around the country. Union density in the hotel sector could double, wages would stop their downward slide, and you would see, over the next decade, significant & concrete improvements in the lives of workers. If the union loses this fight, it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that any prospects for hotel workers would be gone forever. Yes, where the unions are currently strong (LA, Vegas, SF, DC, NY) they would probably stay strong (at least until what happened in grocery happens with hotels), but this is not a replicable approach. The main reason being money & resources. The union has been planning this for years, and there's probably only one bite at the apple.

A little while later, he sent this postscript.

One final note on the campaign. People have noticed big full page ads recently from the Center for Union Facts. [References here, here , and here, Web site here.] One might wonder: why start an attack on labor now, at the nadir of their strength and power? I haven't seen anyone make this connection yet, but I suspect that this anti-labor campaign is directly linked to the UNITE HERE national contract campaign. Richard Berman has long-connections to the restaurant & beverage industries, & they seem to have focused in particular on UNITE HERE president Bruce Raynor. If this is true -- and not just a random attack on labor -- it's probably an illegal violation of section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA-- and a sign of how seriously the industry is taking this campaign, and how hard (and dirty) they'll fight.

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  • At 10:11 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    Coco, if you do read these comments again (or anyone else who knows), a question occurred to me: Your description of the situation implies that UNITE HERE learned from the mistakes of UFCW. Are other sector-wide unions watching UNITE HERE to see if this works? In other words, is this a test case not only for UNITE HERE's viability but for nationalizing contract drives in this way?

  • At 3:35 AM, Blogger Coco Seven Mile said…

    First of all, the campaign (which is called the "04-06 campaign") was not a response to the UFCW's getting reamed; it was already on the drawing board before UFCW got reamed. The UFCW situation is just a handy rhetorical device to show the necessity of such an approach.

    The union you'd most hope to be learning this lesson is, yes, the UFCW. But I think they just learned it, good and hard.

    Part of the problem is that there aren't enough sectoral unions. Too many unions these days are increasingly general unions-- this is the whole problem on which the recent AFL/CTW split turned, to some degree. And those that are sectoral -- UAW, IBT, IAM, USWA -- have long had national bargaining.

    UNITE HERE finds itself in a situation where companies that didnt used to be national are now national-- the results of a few decades of consolidation. So they're being responsive, though in an aggressive way.

    I can't think of any other industries (and the relevant unions) offhand that face a similar situation, so I don't know if there's the broader applicability you're talking about.


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