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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Nov 1, 2017, 2:32 pm

How Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Hate Is Galvanizing Hotel Workers to Fight Back

BY Bruce Vail

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Labor union groups join anti-Trump protesters outside of the Trump International Hotel in Washington on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)  

No friend of labor or working-class immigrants, President Donald Trump is nevertheless providing a back-handed boost to the hotel workers’ union UNITE HERE by helping it sign up new members at its union locals around the country. Trump’s threats to punish immigrants has prompted more and more workers to look to the union as a way to protect themselves in an uncertain political climate, UNITE HERE leaders say.  

The boost is powerful enough that 2017 is proving to be a banner year for new organizing at the union. Spokesperson Rachel Gumpert says UNITE HERE is leading the field among big unions, with major recruiting efforts underway. Some 12,000 new members have been signed up since the beginning of the year, she tells In These Times, making 2017 the best year for new organizing in recent memory.

The claim was highlighted on October 19, when UNITE HERE staged street actions in 40 cities across North America. Timed to coincide with the opening of the AFL-CIO convention in St. Louis, the actions were designed to emphasize the link between workers’ rights and immigrants’ rights as Trump attacks both.

“Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, and more importantly his anti-immigrant policies, have galvanized immigrant workers to take action to secure basic protections for themselves and their families,” says Gumpert.

“In the workplace, this means unionizing,” she continues. “UNITE HERE is proud to represent tens of thousands of immigrants. And in a national political moment where law-abiding immigrants who have contributed to their communities and local economies for decades are being deported for years-old non-violent misdemeanors, we’re proud to be doing new organizing in workplaces across America to help protect immigrant workers.”

The additional 12,000 members bumps up total UNITE HERE membership to roughly 285,000. The union reported a membership of 272,963 to the U.S Department of Labor last year, compared to 264,104 in 2015. UNITE HERE is the fastest growing union in the AFL-CIO, the labor federation’s spokesperson  Carolyn Bobb tells In These Times.

Most of the growth is among hotel and casino workers, although there have also been gains in food service jobs, including the organizing win for cafeteria workers at the Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters of social media giant Facebook. In July, more than 500 of those workers joined UNITE HERE Local 19, based in nearby San Jose.

More typical has been the progress at the MGM Gold Strike Casino in Tunica, Miss., where UNITE HERE is organizing in coalition with several other unions. The coalition has been reporting slow but steady progress at the casino (near Memphis, Tenn.), and Gumpert indicates the union is counting this as one of its victories this year.

Another southern victory took place in New Orleans, where about 500 workers at the Hilton Riverside Hotel voted in early October for UNITE HERE representation. Local journalist Richard Thompson produced an overview of union organizing in the city’s tourism industry for The New Orleans Advocate on October 8, and concluded that Crescent City workers are growing more receptive to union membership.

One of the union’s most active and innovative units is Local 11 in Los Angeles. With its heavy Latino population, anti-Trump sentiment is strong in the Los Angeles labor community, reports Local 11 spokesperson Andrew Cohen, and “is definitely providing a boost” to new organizing efforts in the region.

It’s been a good year so far, Cohen tells In These Times, with hotel victories at the Westin Long Beach, Sofitel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, Santa Monica Doubletree and JW Marriott Santa Monica Le Merigot. The Doubletree was an especially satisfying win for 23,000-member Local 11, because it required a 15-year campaign of unusual intensity.

The local also had a smaller victory with food service workers at the airport. A unit of the Chicago-based airline catering outfit Flying Food was successfully organized at Los Angeles International Airport as part of UNITE HERE’s national campaign at that company, Cohen says. All together, Local 11 has added about 1,700 new members in the last year, he reports.

The local isn’t resting on its laurels: It just launched a new campaign to organize at the luxury Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes. A key to this campaign will be targeting the private equity firm Lowe Enterprises, which owns the resort, Cohen says.

In announcing the Oct. 19 ‘Day of Action,” UNITE HERE President Donald “D.” Taylor stated, “We are in a political age where immigrants, women, and all workers are under constant attack, and equality for all is at risk of being no more than just a dream.”

“Unions serve their country as a crucial answer in the fight against deepening racial and economic inequality in our country,” Taylor continued. “Today is only the beginning of what UNITE HERE will do to take back our country.”

Gumpert tells In These Times the union considers the October 19 street demonstrations to have been a success, and that its various organizing campaigns will be continuing at an increased tempo.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA's Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper's New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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