No union in America has been positioned more directly in the bullseye of this pandemic’s economic devastation than Unite Here, the 300,000-member union of hotel, food service and casino workers. In April, its members were suffering a staggering 98% unemployment rate. Almost six months later, the union is stuck at about 85% unemployment. Despite that, it is also the only group determined enough to wage a large-scale door knocking campaign for the Joe Biden ticket, at a time when the Democratic Party has completely abandoned its ground game.
Even as Republicans push to reopen businesses and Wall Street continues to boom, the status of Unite Here — known as an aggressive and politically active union that wields serious power within entire industries — paints a picture of a working class still mired in an existential crisis of long term unemployment. D. Taylor, Unite Here’s gruff international president, says that the collapse of the travel and tourism industry that decimated the union’s jobs continues to grind on. “There’s no business travel, there’s no conventions, there’s no foreign travel. The hotel industry has really never reopened from the pandemic,” he says. Likewise, the shutdown of major sporting events and of many college and university campuses has put many of the union’s industrial food service workers out of work. And the scheduled October 1 expiration of the Congressional airline rescue package in the CARES Act will almost certainly mean layoffs for many of the union’s airport workers as well. Even in Las Vegas, a relative bright spot that has seen some resumption in business, more than half of Unite Here’s members are still unemployed, according to Taylor.
The loss of dues money from all of those unemployed members has been a large blow to Unite Here’s own internal finances. But the union has not stopped working. Besides helping members win extensions of health benefits and navigate broken state unemployment systems (which Taylor calls “a joke”), most of the union’s battles are now political. One of their top issues in cities across the nation now is trying to ensure that laid off members retain long term “recall rights” to get their old jobs back when business resumes, so that employers can’t use the pandemic shutdown as an excuse to get rid of experienced union workers in favor of new, lower-priced replacements.
On a national level, Taylor says Congress desperately needs to pass another stimulus bill like the HEROES act to prevent more people from losing health care coverage during this crisis, and that there must be a coordinated national strategy to keep Covid in check. He is not optimistic about either. “I kind of think we’re back to the ‘Oliver Twist’ days when you deal with this administration and Senate Republicans,” he says.
Unite Here, like most unions outside of law enforcement, is backing the Biden-Harris ticket. They held a virtual event with Kamala Harris this week. (A UH spokesperson says the union is spending “several millions” on the election, and is pulling in additional funding from outside sources as well). At that event, Taylor urged Harris not to give up on old-fashioned door knocking — something that Unite Here itself is pursuing in the key swing states of Nevada, Arizona, and Florida.
In fact, the union’s commitment to knocking on doors despite the pandemic makes it unique in the Democratic Party. Politico reported last month that the Trump campaign is knocking on a million doors a week, and the Biden campaign is knocking on zero. Taylor says that the union has a strict set of safety protocols, including social distancing and masks for their volunteers, who carry extra masks to hand out to anyone who answers the door without one. Thus far, they have not had any cases of Covid as a result of the program. The union plans to knock on a half million doors in Nevada, Arizona, and Florida by election day.
“I don’t think there’s any replacement for it. I’ve been trying to urge every progressive group” to start door knocking as well, Taylor says. “I think if they don’t, it’s at their own peril. Door knocking has been a tradition for decades, and it works. You can’t talk to somebody in a TV screen. There’s a safe way to do it.”
Despite Taylor’s urging, the Democratic Party itself seems to have made the decision to forsake door knocking entirely during the pandemic. (Biden’s campaign manager said earlier this month that “those metrics don’t have any impact on reaching voters.) The Biden campaign, therefore, finds itself in the odd position of relying on a union made up almost entirely of people who are currently unemployed to knock on doors in swing states for them, shrugging off the union’s strategic advice, even as the campaign welcomes its material support.
For D. Taylor, defeating the “pathological liar” Donald Trump is a necessity — but getting Biden elected is only the beginning of organized labor’s work. He is adamant that unions must continue to organize, despite the fact that many are just trying to survive, in order to avoid the long term fate of “trying to protect a smaller and smaller piece of the work force.” He is equally adamant that unions need to lean hard on Biden in order to make him do what must be done for working people. “If we don’t put pressure on folks on an ongoing basis, they rarely do the hard things that need to be done,” Taylor says.
“I think this [election] is gonna be a barn burner. If anyone assumes victory, that’s a guaranteed defeat.”
Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter 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.