The Dream of a Unionized New Orleans Is Coming True
The pandemic was the first big test for New Orleans’ hospitality unions. They passed with flying colors.
NEW ORLEANS — Drago’s, the sea food restaurant inside the over 1,600-room Hilton Riverside hotel, advertises itself as the inventor of charbroiled oysters, a claim too good to check. Trinice Dyer, a New Orleans native, has worked there as a server for 12 years. When Dyer and her colleagues lost their jobs at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Hilton let employees use up their banked paid time off; after that, they were on their own.
“When the days turned to weeks, and the weeks turned to months, I’m like, OMG,” Dyer remembers. Coworkers scrambled to apply for jobs at Walmart or Amazon. Dyer pulled from her savings to help pay her son’s college tuition. After a year out of work, she was finally recalled in March 2021. “It was just faith, grace and mercy that got me through it,” she says.
Nationwide, the hospitality sector is the industry hardest hit by the pandemic.
Dyer and her colleagues got their jobs back because the New Orleans Hilton is unionized, affiliated with Unite Here Local 23 since 2017. The leap of faith required to unionize the hotel, Dyer says, was scary, but she decided to support it. “What do we have to lose?” she thought. “I want to be heard. Before the union they wasn’t hearing us. It’s ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ We wanted to be valued. We wanted to be respected.”
That risk paid off in raises, in protection from capricious firings and, now especially, in “recall rights” — the guarantee that laid-off workers will be offered their old jobs back if the jobs become available.
Dyer and her coworkers are part of what has quietly become one of the most noteworthy projects to build union power in the South: Unite Here’s ongoing work to unionize the famous New Orleans hospitality industry.
As Americans slowly emerge from the pandemic and begin to travel again, one of the most vital issues for hospitality workers nationwide has become recall rights. Without that guarantee, companies are able to staff back up with new, cheaper workers, leaving longtime employees behind.
Unite Here says those who lose their jobs without recall rights typically see their wages decline 12%. For older workers, that figure is more like 35%.
“A lot of our members have worked on their jobs 30-some years,” Marlene Patrick-Cooper says. “Recall is what really, truly matters.”
Patrick-Cooper is president of Unite Here Local 23, a gregarious woman who could have been designed in a lab to be perfectly suited for the job. Raised in the small city of Jeanerette in southwest Louisiana with a father who was a union shop steward, Patrick-Cooper followed an aunt to Las Vegas in the mid-1980s to go to school, and started looking for work. “[My aunt said] said, ‘Make sure you march down to that union hall and get a union job, and you don’t look for work nowhere else.’ Because there was a standard that had been set.”
Patrick-Cooper learned her craft in the city that is the model for what a unionized New Orleans hospitality industry could one day look like: Las Vegas. She worked for Unite Here’s mighty affiliate, the Culinary Union, which has organized virtually the city’s entire casino industry. That union is the best example in America of successful wall-to-wall organizing to build economic and political power for working-class people in a tourist city. (That power, in fact, can reach across the country. Unite Here used its clout with gaming companies in Vegas to make them agree not to fight organizing efforts at the casinos in New Orleans and Biloxi.)
In 2014, after stints in other cities around the country, Patrick-Cooper got her chance to prove what could be done in New Orleans. She took over leadership of Local 23, which sprawls across much of the South, with chapters from Washington, D.C., to Texas. “The union was beginning to put resources into organizing the South,” Patrick-Cooper says. “And me being from the South, I wanted in.”
Thanks to the efforts of Local 23, New Orleans has become one of the most noteworthy enclaves of union power in the South.
As a city, New Orleans is sui generis, a more than 300-year mashup of African, European and Native American cultures that exists nowhere else in America. As a place where people wake up and go to work, it has more familiar characteristics. The city is situated in the deep South, in a so-called right-to-work state (less than 6% of working people are unionized) with a state legislature eager to squash anything that might be considered progressive. It is 60% Black, and the average Black household earns less than half as much as the average white household. It is a tourist economy, with nearly 20 million visitors a year fueling a $10 billion hospitality industry that touches every part of the city, directly or indirectly. And since the utter devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans has been spectacularly revived as a (wealthier, more unequal) tourist destination.
Local 23 has been quietly toiling for years to win the working people of New Orleans enough power to command a fair slice of that tourist economy. In a 20-minute stroll, a visitor can walk past the sprawling Ernest N. Morial Convention Center (which looms just off the Mississippi River), then by the cruise ship terminal, then past the nearby Hilton Riverside (one of the biggest hotels in town), hang a left on Poydras Street and pass Harrah’s (the city’s only non-riverboat casino) and end up at the Loews Hotel on the next block. Employees from all of these properties, more than 1,400 workers total,
have unionized with Local 23, the organized labor equivalent of capturing an entire corner on a Monopoly board.
The union, whose membership is 90% Black and 65% women, also represents about half of the food service workers at the New Orleans airport, and 1,700 workers in nearby Biloxi, Miss. It is now possible to fly into New Orleans, attend a convention, stay at a hotel and take a casino day trip without leaving Unite Here properties.
The Covid-19 pandemic — a disaster that is, at least in the short term, comparable to Katrina in economic effect — has put all of that work to the test.
Because Unite Here’s membership is concentrated in hotel, airport and casino workers, the union has been economically ravaged by the near total shutdown of travel and tourism during the pandemic. At the early peak of the lockdowns in April 2020, the union’s membership was 98% unemployed. Today, member unemployment is still 60 – 70%, according to Unite Here’s international president, D. Taylor. In New Orleans, the numbers have been similar.
With members laid off across the country, Unite Here had to adjust tactics by location to secure vital recall rights. In politically friendly areas, the union is pursuing state or local legislation guaranteeing recall rights for both union and nonunion hospitality workers. Unite Here won that legislative battle statewide in California and a host of major cities, including Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Providence, R.I. Unite Here is still fighting for legislation in Nevada, Minnesota and Connecticut, and a long list of other states.
In politically hostile areas like Louisiana — where the state legislature eagerly overrides worker-friendly legislation, such as minimum wage increases — Unite Here directly negotiated recall rights with employers, despite facing an existential threat. Though the Unite Here national office sent financial reserves to help tide over local chapters, union staffers themselves faced layoffs when member dues suddenly dried up. Before the pandemic, Local 23 had an organizing staff of eight; today, it is down to three.
The bulk of Unite Here’s organizing in New Orleans happened after the 2008 recession, meaning the pandemic has been the first major economic shock most members have lived through as union members. Even as it lost staff, Local 23 had to transform itself into what Patrick-Cooper describes as “a social service beacon.” The union turned its focus to helping newly laid off union members navigate the state’s broken unemployment system. It created a hotline for members to call for assistance, ran a food bank and searched everywhere for fundraising, all while marshaling support for Unite Here’s massive national door-knocking campaign in support of Joe Biden’s presidential run — and fighting for extended recall rights for workers.
Despite the obstacles, Local 23 reached agreements in New Orleans with all of its employers not covered by national contracts to recall workers for two years. Union officials say the negotiations were not especially contentious, a sign that, as in Las Vegas, major hospitality employers in New Orleans have come to accept Unite Here as an entity easier to work with than fight.
The union also renegotiated a contract with Harrah’s in late March that extended recall from 12 months to 24. The union says the casino was willing to grant the extension to preserve its experienced workforce, a crucial provision for the slice of employees who have yet to be called back — and have already been out of work for 14 months.
Dora Whitfield, a server in Harrah’s casino buffet, just celebrated (from home) her 20th anniversary as a Harrah’s employee. Whitfield has been on furlough since March 2020. Her income is $247 per week in unemployment money from the state of Louisiana. She used to be able to make almost that much on a single weekend day at work.
Though Whitfield had no union experience before Harrah’s organized in 2014, she was appointed as a shop steward three years ago because of her reputation for fearlessness in talking to everyone. “Down South, I feel like a lot of us should know about unions but [don’t],” Whitfield says. “I’m like, ‘Why we never knew about this here?’ You have to learn how to get out and let people know there is a union in New Orleans in hospitality.”
The disdain for broad worker protections coming from conservatives in the Louisiana statehouse may, ironically, backfire on the legislators. Everyone in New Orleans can plainly see union members are the only working people who won guaranteed recall rights, which only increases the incentive for everyone else to unionize.
“In Southern states, sometimes the laws are not really on our side,” says Leah Bailey, a Local 23 research analyst. “So having that union contract is everything.”
The economic recovery in New Orleans has been as slow and painful as the national vaccine rollout. The city’s tourism bureau says that, from January to the end of March, hotel occupancy downtown ranged from 20% to 49%. Mardi Gras was canceled, though Jazz Fest, the city’s other major festival, has been rescheduled from spring to October. In late April, crowds in the French Quarter were less than half of the usual hordes. Tarot card readers sat bored at their folding tables in Jackson Square; the few jazz bands playing for tips on the street corners faced little competition in hearing distance.
Every hospitality worker who is called back to work this year will have suffered. But those who were in a union at least suffered less uncertainty.
For workers looking to have a surreptitious meeting with a union organizer, Ernst Cafe, a sprawling bar and grill that occupies a corner of the warehouse district just a few blocks from the Mississippi River in downtown New Orleans, is well known. The tables that line the outside are a convenient place for anyone who works at the nearby hotels, convention center and casino to sit and talk. From there, an entire city is slowly being transformed.
On a humid weekday morning in April, Willie Gordon rests an elbow on one of those tables an hour before his shift begins at the Loews Hotel a block away. He has the dapper look and unflappable demeanor one might expect of someone who spent 18 years as the hotel’s bell captain, leading all of the bellhops and valets (before the pandemic, there were 15; just four remain.) Before that, Gordon worked for 10 years as the bell captain at the nearby Westin Hotel. There, he says, “employees would run” when a union organizer came around, mostly out of fear of a general manager Gordon still recalls bitterly, 18 years later.
“He would talk about what he could do, [how] ‘I can fire you on the spot,’ ” Gordon remembers. “He would say he was joking, but no one took it as a joke.”
The vast majority of hotels in New Orleans were nonunion until 2004, when — shortly after the Loews Hotel opened — Gordon and other employees unionized with Unite Here. Gordon is now a shop steward. When problems arise — like the time an overeager salesperson tried to hand out group discounts that cut into the bellhops’ pay — Gordon gets things straightened out in a single conversation. When the men he works with ask how he did it — he refers to the bellhops always as just “my guys” — he points across Poydras Street toward the still nonunion Westin, then says, “Here’s the difference between us being here, and us being over there.”
New Orleans is a city whose raffish charm is partially rooted in its chaos. Where Las Vegas has a single, gleaming strip of enormous properties that dominate its hospitality industry, New Orleans has fewer big players and far more small operators and hustlers. That makes the city “a hard nut to crack” for a union dreaming of an organized hospitality sector, according to local labor historian Thomas J. Adams. “Most people still work for relatively small shops, or work at the franchise level,” Adams says. “In that way, New Orleans looks more like a lot of the country.”
The fragmented nature of the New Orleans hospitality industry means that Local 23 takes on an enormous civic importance as one of the only institutions capable of raising standards across the industry. On the other hand, it also means the majority of people whose livelihoods depend somehow on the tourist trade will probably never be union members.
There will always be a role in the city for groups willing to organize in the space outside of traditional unions — and there is comradery and cross-pollination between union and nonunion spaces.
Gabby Bolden-Shaw moved to New Orleans in 2009 and got a job at the convention center. She got involved with the union and eventually became the lead shop steward. She was so good, in fact, that Unite Here offered her a job as an organizer in 2019 — but she was furloughed only months later, after the pandemic drained the union’s finances. But she found another way to support workers.
In August 2020, Bolden-Shaw got a new job with Step Up Louisiana, an activist group focused on local labor and political organizing. Now, she does some of the same work the union does — such as helping people file for unemployment during the pandemic — but on behalf of people who aren’t union members (as well as some who are). Among the workers she helps now are some who were at the convention center as independent contractors, people who were working alongside Unite Here members but who were unable to join the union.
One of those contractors is Will Walker, who moved to New Orleans from California three years ago and worked as a bartender for splashy events at the convention center and the Superdome. Since facing abrupt unemployment in February, Walker has channeled much of his energy into organizing and attending rallies with Step Up — to the horror of some he used to work with.
“They were trying to explain to me that this wasn’t gonna get better, because … this is how they operate in Louisiana,” says Walker, who is Black. “You have no voice. Once you speak out like you do in California, you may come up dead, hurt or missing. People that I worked with actually thought I was crazy to put myself out there.”
The explanation most often given for the weakness of unions in the South is that the vast majority of the South is right-to-work, which makes it harder to build and maintain union membership. But Nevada is also a right-to-work state, which hasn’t stopped Unite Here yet. There is no reason the union’s model cannot translate to the South, and Unite Here’s international president, D. Taylor, says New Orleans can “absolutely” be transformed by the union in the same way Las Vegas has.
“I didn’t take this job to be satisfied with what we did in Las Vegas,” Taylor says. “New Orleans is a perfect example where the only difference in the living standards for workers in the industry is our union.”
“We’re very interested in organizing the South, period. You change the South, you change America.”
For Unite Here, the ironclad union power they have built in Las Vegas — a power that has given tens of thousands of service workers a middle-class life — is a tantalizing promise of what New Orleans might become. To dream, just cast your eyes skyward. Next to the unionized Hilton Riverside, a glimmering 34-story Four Seasons is nearing completion. Marriott and Sheraton towers loom large. The iconic Hotel Monteleone sign casts a shadow over the French Quarter. The wraparound porches of the Omni sprawl lasciviously off Bourbon Street. The road to union power in New Orleans runs through properties like these. Control the jewels of the hospitality industry, and you can pull up the standards for the entire city.
Marlene Patrick-Cooper agrees. “You want them all,” she says, smiling. “It’s like a snake eating his big apple. A snake’s gonna eat that apple. But he’s going to eat it one bite at a time.”
Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.