On Progressives and Picket Lines

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on December 2, 2014

The story was very different, depending who told it.

To the organizers of the I'M HOME and National Manufactured Homeowners' Assocation conferences, news that the Seattle Olive 8 hotel, which they had booked for their annual conferences this past November, was under boycott by the hotel workers union UNITE HERE for refusing to allow workers the choice to unionize came out of the blue. It was too shortly 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 they couldn't afford, and the contract provisions meant the hotel wouldn't have actually lost money with a move anyway.

CFED has a long history of working with unions—in fact its first funders were unions, as CFED was challenging states on their tax policies and on the idea that "lowest taxes" equaled "best business climate." CFED's president Andrea Levere remembers being called a "union front" when she presented that research work. CFED has promised to revamp its event planning policies to make it less likely it will be taken by surprise in such a way again. Levere says right now one of the main things we need for economic justice is to "regain some balance of power in the workplace." 

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 solidarity 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. One speaker complained to an event organizer that the union representative was horribly inflexible and wondered how they expected to gain supporters that way.

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

Levi Pine, the UNITE HERE organizer who had ruffled some speakers' feathers, says they aren't running a stealth campaign. The boycott has been on for a year. Dozens of local groups are supporting the boycott, including one housing organization, the Low Income Housing Institute, which moved an event out of the hotel. (For an article about how to move an event, see here.) Numerous elected officials have come out in favor of the boycott. It has been covered in the local media.

Nonetheless, Pine 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 developing Fair Hotels (like "fair trade") campaign that will make it much easier and more matter of course to be informed about the labor status of hotels and meeting venues. (See this list.)

But, he says, when it comes down to it, they can't make boycott exceptions for friends, even ones willing to wear buttons in solidarity. "That's a common reaction," says Pine, but "we have to hold that hard line. 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 that are 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.' It took years and years of this exact situation where people came out of it saying well that wasn't fair, they pushed us too hard. If we'd accepted that, we never would have reached this conclusion where thousands of workers ended up winning a union."

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

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 our lives are about and have some possession of what the terms of our lives should be. We're really used to everyone from hotel owners to politicians telling us, 'You don't really need that, let me tell you what you really need. I'm going to make a better offer and if you were smart you'd take my word for it that you don't really want what you think you want. What you really want is what I'm offering you.'"

Lessons to Be Learned?

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, who are generally better off for the unions' presence; sometimes well-off enough to create considerable jealousy for those not represented. Even among the progressive nonprofit world, many of us think of PACs and pension funds, or working to diversify apprenticeship programs and/or struggles over Davis-Bacon and the cost of union labor in building affordable housing.

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 overtime, 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, for one, is growing. So are groups like Domestic Workers United. Walmart strikes on Black Friday are becoming a tradition, and this Thursday, fast food workers plan to follow up their September strike with another one calling for $15/hour wages. Bikeshare workers are trying to organize. These labor struggles represent the same people the community development field serves, and their goals—economic justice, equity, dignity—look a lot like ours. They are doing that hard work of "shifting the balance of power in the workplace."

I think that this new wave of labor organizing is going to call for a very different approach to community-labor partnerships than the community development field has had in a while. Though what these partnerships have been doing is important and powerful, and should lay good groundwork, doing our part as a field to help shift the balance of power in the workplace will mean much more than just inviting established unions into our coalitions, doing joint projects, or convincing labor to support affordable housing. It will mean talking about solidarity, not just collaboration. It will mean taking sides in organizing struggles and committing to honoring picket lines and boycotts.

It will, for many of us, mean learning or re-learning what that entails. Being prepared to do that without being caught by surprise will mean, among other things, mixing labor news into our information channels (and helping labor to figure out how to best reach who they need to reach; it's not like they always do things perfectly either). In these days of information overload, what we read about can too easily get hyper-segregated, no matter how often we talk about breaking silos.

To paraphrase the folks at Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation, which founded Humboldt Construction Company—if you have a decent job, you don't (or shouldn't) need "affordable" housing. Organized labor is one way to make existing jobs better jobs. We'd be working against ourselves not to throw whatever weight we have behind that.

(Photo: Workers and supporters picket the Grand Hyatt in Seattle, Nov. 13, 2014. Photo by Miriam Axel-Lute, CC BY-NC.)

About the author more »

Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.

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