Email this article to a friend

Working In These Times

Friday, Apr 3, 2015, 6:18 pm

Over 40 Former UNITE HERE Staff, Volunteers Rebuke Union for Endorsing Rahm Emanuel

BY Micah Uetricht

Email this article to a friend

Dozens of former UNITE HERE staffers and members are accusing the union of betraying its progressive principles in Local 1's endorsement of Rahm Emanuel.  

A group of former UNITE HERE staffers and volunteers from around the country released an open letter to the union today, rebuking Chicago's UNITE HERE Local 1 for its endorsement of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and questioning the union's commitment to progressive unionism.

"Local 1’s endorsement of Rahm Emanuel for Mayor of Chicago ... is a betrayal of the cause of all workers and a black mark on UNITE HERE’s legacy," the letter reads. As of Friday morning, the letter was signed by 41 people, almost all of whom listed the local or locals where they worked with the union. 

The letter was released this morning at a web site entitled "No Rahm Love," a reference to the union's "Rahm Love" ad campaign that praises the mayor's record on workers' issues, despite his widespread reputation as a strongly anti-labor mayor, most notably in his dealings with the Chicago Teachers Union. Members of UNITE HERE Local 1 stood prominently behind Emanuel as he gave his speech on election night February 24. (Full disclosure: I was briefly a member of Local 1 in 2010.)

"Local 1’s campaign, 'Rahm Love,' claims that the mayor 'loves' workers in Chicago, raising wages and supporting their unions. Nothing could be further from the truth," the letter continues. "Throughout his term as mayor, Rahm has enacted a program of devastation against workers throughout Chicago." Almost all of those who signed the letter are former staffers or activists.

The letter's signatories say the endorsement of Emanuel has made them question what they formerly considered to be the progressivism of the union.

What is hardest to take is that we chose to work with UNITE HERE because we saw it as a beacon for worker militancy and a progressive outlook in a labor movement that oftentimes looks dismal. The training, experience, and commitment to workers’ struggle we gained in our work with UNITE HERE is invaluable, as is UNITE HERE’s historic support for victories in immigrant rights, dramatic rises in worker standards, and innovation in union tactics. Even after leaving UNITE HERE work for our various reasons, we still believed UNITE HERE could be a valuable place for young activists to put their time and energy. Local 1’s endorsement, however, raise serious doubts on this.

UNITE HERE has positioned itself as strong part of the progressive wing of the American labor movement. In addition to its role in the immigrant rights movement, the union has taken strong public stances on LGBTQ rights and other issues. And at a time when many unions have all but given up on militant action like strikes and strong development of rank-and-file workers as activists, the union has made both a key part of their program at many union locals around the country, including Chicago.

That made the union's endorsement of Emanuel puzzling to many observers and former UNITE HERE activists and organizers like those quoted in the letter.

The union's endorsement of Emanuel goes "against everything I was ever taught" at the union: that "you could have all the money in the world, but organizing outdid money," says Jill Landrith, a former server at a restaurant inside the Westin Hotel in Chicago and member of Local 1. Landrith, who signed the open letter, left her server position to work for the union as an internal organizer from 2009 to 2014.

Local 1 has members who are food service workers in Chicago Public Schools; when Mayor Emanuel closed down 49 public schools in 2013, those workers lost their jobs. "We have members who were personally hurt by this man. When he closed the schools, our members got fired," she says.

During a staff meeting when the union was discussing its potential endorsement in late 2013, Landrith says she remembers a staffer commenting, "This is how the trades do it"—referring to the building trades unions, the vast majority of which endorsed Emanuel—"so if we want a seat at the table, this is how we have to do it, too." Another former Local 1 staffer present at the meeting confirmed hearing the statement.

Landrith says she was particularly upset by the "Rahm Love" ad campaign, in which workers listed off how much Emanuel has done for them. One ad included Roushaunda Williams, a Palmer House Hotel worker Landrith organized with during a strike there, who says, "“Rahm love. It’s how the mayor fights so that hotel workers earn a decent living. We have health insurance, pensions and sick days off. We have Rahm love."

"We won [the strike] because of Roushaunda," she says, "because of all the workers there who went out on strike and fought. So to see them in that video giving Rahm credit for what they've done—it killed me. Roushaunda deserved the credit, not Rahm."

Landrith, her voice choking, says, "It hurts me, it just hurts," before ending the interview.

Multiple requests for comment from a UNITE HERE Local 1 spokesperson went unanswered.

The full text of the letter can be read below:

Dear UNITE HERE Local 1,

We the undersigned are allies and supporters of UNITE HERE, in Chicago and elsewhere. We have all, at some point, committed our hearts, souls, and hours, as volunteer interns, boycott and research volunteers, and staff in the belief that UNITE HERE was a powerful force for justice for hospitality workers and workers everywhere. Local 1's endorsement of Rahm Emanuel for Mayor of Chicago is the exact opposite, however: it is a betrayal of the cause of all workers and a black mark on UNITE HERE's legacy.

Local 1's campaign, “Rahm Love,” claims that the mayor “loves” workers in Chicago, raising wages and supporting their unions. Nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout his term as mayor, Rahm has enacted a program of devastation against workers throughout Chicago, from his attempt to destroy the standards of the Chicago Teachers Union, closing half the mental health clinics in the city, presiding over a higher unemployment rate among African Americans than other cities, and continuing to use TIFs as a city slush fund to benefit corporate wealth and the rich.

American cities are facing pitched battles. On one side, progressive candidates are advancing across the country and socialist electoral candidates are winning elections in major cities like Jackson, Miss., and Seattle, Wash., and marchers are blocking freeways and shutting down public spaces in protest of police violence; on the other side, gentrification displaces communities into desolate ring suburbs, and politicians race to give the biggest tax breaks to corporations. This is no different in Chicago, and there is a crucial question of all unions to be asked: which side are you on?

Taking the choice of struggle is dangerous and uncertain, but one an increasing number of unions, like the CTU, have taken. Local 1's choice was clearly not made out of stupidity or ignorance. It is a calculated choice to prioritize opportunistic gains and favor in the halls of power over the road of struggle. This is an old strategy, and one that time and again has proved a failure in the long run. It is just like an organizing drive at a workplace: to some workers the boss offers raises, promotions and even some power while others are subject to firings, surveillance, and intimidation. Those the boss tries to buy off have a choice: do they stand with their coworkers for real power, or take the pittance they're offered? UNITE HERE Local 1 has chosen the table scraps, and thrown their fellow workers into the fire.

How could this choice have been made? It is telling that this letter does not include many current activists for the union. It is not that staff and volunteers throughout the union are not disgusted by Local 1's behavior. Quite the contrary, there are many who agree with us, but they are afraid. They are afraid of losing their jobs, of being squeezed out of work they've poured themselves into, or getting cornered into uncomfortable conversations ensuring at least their silence. What's more, some think of themselves as committed to the broader movement but have bought into the destructive idea that no matter what, building their union is identical with building the movement and thus deny the destructive impacts of this opportunism. This anti-political and anti-democratic atmosphere is a dangerous omen for the state of rank-and-file democracy in UNITE HERE, and leads us to wonder what Local 1's membership thinks of Rahm, their union's behavior, and whether the union represents their interests.

What is hardest to take is that we chose to work with UNITE HERE because we saw it as a beacon for worker militancy and a progressive outlook in a labor movement that oftentimes looks dismal. The training, experience, and commitment to workers' struggle we gained in our work with UNITE HERE is invaluable, as is UNITE HERE's historic support for victories in immigrant rights, dramatic rises in worker standards, and innovation in union tactics. Even after leaving UNITE HERE work for our various reasons, we still believed UNITE HERE could be a valuable place for young activists to put their time and energy. Local 1's endorsement, however, raise serious doubts on this.

We hope this letter is heard by UNITE HERE Local 1 leadership, but more importantly we hope it is heard by union militants everywhere and the UNITE HERE rank and file. Do not stand cynically by as Local 1's leadership follows the old losing playbook and betrays the entire movement. We can and must have a fighting, progressive labor movement, and we can and must beat Rahm.

Micah Uetricht is a contributing editor at In These Times and is a former associate editor and editorial intern at the magazine. He is an associate editor at Jacobin, the author of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity, and has written for the Nation, the Chicago Reader, VICE News, the Guardian and elsewhere. He previously worked as a labor organizer. Follow him on Twitter at @micahuetricht.

View Comments