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

Micah Uetricht April 3, 2015

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 the deputy edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine and host of its pod­cast The Vast Major­i­ty. He is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. He is the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty (Ver­so 2014), coau­thor of Big­ger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Cam­paign to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ism (Ver­so 2020), and is cur­rent­ly at work on a book on New Left­ists who indus­tri­al­ized.” He pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a labor orga­niz­er. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @micahuetricht.

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