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Category: Labor movement

Support the Employee Free Choice Act

I’m a union organizer. It’s not an easy job. One of the main reasons why it’s so hard is that elections under the National Labor Relations Board rules don’t in any way resemble elections in our democracy. Employers regularly intimidate workers in forced group meetings and one-on-meetings. Even though it’s illegal, employers fire workers who try to organize unions. Employers have constant access to workers — both through conversations in the workplace, posting on employee bulletin boards, and notices included with paychecks. Workers are afforded none of these means of communication. The votes are usually conducted at the workplace, with workers often walking through a gauntlet of managers on their way to the ballot box.

These elections are more like elections in a one-party dictatorship.

The Employee Free Choice Act is trying to improve conditions for workers by allowing them to unionize through the card check process. This means that when a majority of employees sign a union card, the employer recognizes their union. This method respects workers’ rights without giving up their right to self-determination.

Please watch this video from the AFL-CIO, and then sign this petition in support of the Employee Free Choice Act. Thanks!

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UNITE HERE prez on Obama’s victory

A UNITE HERE election volunteer

I work for the labor union UNITE HERE. Our president, Bruce Raynor, put out this statement on Barack Obama’s victory:

November 4, 2008

New York – Barack Obama’s victory is a victory for working people across this country. Regardless of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, immigration status, sexual orientation – all working people have taken a giant step forward today.

Barack has renewed our faith in what is possible for those who are trying to stay in the middle class and for those who are seeking to become a part of the middle class.

With great vision, he talked with us about what he wants to accomplish for the American people. And with great candor, he called for every person to become engaged in the effort.

As the first labor union to endorse Barack, UNITE HERE took that call seriously. From the strength of our nearly one million members and retirees, we mobilized thousands to get out the vote in more than a dozen states. We knocked on more than 350,000 doors; and during this past weekend alone, we had more than 3,000 volunteers talking with voters in battleground states.

Barack’s insight and leadership drive a policy agenda that supports those working people who have formed a union, as well as those who have not yet formed a union. He is committed to ensuring that working families have wages that enable them to put food on the table, cutting taxes for 95 percent of workers and their families, securing healthcare for all Americans, promoting fair trade and not “free trade” that sends good jobs overseas, defending the right of workers to freely join unions by passing the Employee Free Choice Act, establishing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, fighting the growth of income inequality, and guaranteeing retirement security for all workers so that growing old does not mean growing poor.

With Barack’s victory, as well as Democratic gains in both the House and the Senate, we can make real reforms to improve the lives of every union member in this country and every worker who wants a union.

To be sure, the current economic crisis will present great challenges. But we are inspired by the change that is possible. And we believe in Barack Obama – a man who understands the experiences of working people. A man who, more than twenty years ago, took a job as a community organizer in Chicago to fight for families devastated by steel plant closings – to fight for working people.

UNITE HERE is a labor union representing 465,000 workers in the apparel, textile, hotel, food service, gaming, and laundry industries.

John in his UNITE HERE hat

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Diamond Walnut: 14 Years on the Line

In 1985, Diamond Walnut faced bankruptcy and turned to its workers for help. The workers, Teamsters from Local Union 601, agreed to make concessions. When the workers’ contract was up, Diamond had reached the Fortune 500 and bragged of record profits. But instead of giving those profits back to its employees, the company demanded more concessions. The workers went on strike — a fight that would last 14 years. This is their story. (Running time – 14:27)

After you watch the video, read this article from Teamster Power on Why Every Union Worker Should Support Obama.

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Hotels in the family

As I may have mentioned, I work for UNITE HERE, the hotel workers union. I’ve worked for the union for several years, a fact which is not unknown to my extended family.

Today, I was visiting my grandmother in her nursing home. My mom was there, too. My grandmother had an old photo on the bed with her, and I asked her what it was. Turned out to be a photo of my grandmother with the staff of the — wait for it — hotel at which she worked.

That’s right. My own grandmother worked at the Wendell Hotel in Pittsfield, Mass. She was a switchboard operator for about five years in the late 40s and early 50s. And no one ever mentioned it to me. Oy!

Here’s a picture of my grandmother with the Wendell gang. She’s in the front row, fifth from the right. This photo was taken at a company picnic somewhere in the Berkshires. (Click for a larger version.)

Wendell Hotel

And here’s the Wendell in about 1912:

Wendell 2

I did some preliminary research on the hotel, and came up with these:

I also discovered this paper (PDF) by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which has the following note:

March 1926: Pittsfield on the air for the first time in its history when AIEE [American Institute of Electrical Engineers] broadcasts the very first words, “We are broadcasting tonight From the Wendell Hotel, in Pittsfield Mass. at the AIEE’s annual banquet”.

The following is from the book Pathfinder to Greylock Mountain, the Berkshire Hills and Historic Bennington by William Hamilton Phillips, published in 1910:

Crossing the line into Pittsfield on the Berkshire trolley road the first objects of interest are Arrowhead, the house of Herman Mellville, the author, and once the site of an Indian village; the former summer residence of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose ancestor, Jonathan Wendell, was an early settler of the town and from whom the Wendell Hotel in Pittsfield was named.

The Wendell is mentioned again in The Practical Hotel Steward by John Tellman, published in 1913.

If you’re interested in learning more about my union, you can visit UNITE HERE’s Web site.

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A union remembers

ILWU photo

My mom and dad took this picture in San Francisco this summer, in front of a union headquarters. My guess is the ILWU. Does anyone know for sure?

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Viva Las … oh, never mind


It’s not that I hate Las Vegas, it’s more that … um … OK, it’s that I hate Las Vegas.

I’m writing this from the Sahara Hotel and Casino in Vegas, where I’ve come for a meeting of hotel union folks. Las Vegas is one of the power bases of my union, UNITE HERE, given that we represent hotel and gaming workers. Nearly every casino on The Strip is union, and this city is home to more than 50,000 of our members. Hotel and gaming jobs here are becoming middle-class jobs as a result.

For me, though, Vegas is everything I dislike about American culture — lit up. Commercialism, overindulgence, self-centeredness, neon. It’s all here in quantities that could make even the most calm and collected person lose their marbles. And as you’ve learned by now, I’m not the most calm and collected person.

I think I would have liked Vegas 50 years ago, when the Sahara was built. Back when the entertainers had last names like Sinatra, Martin, and Davis. Back when Count Basie backed Nat Cole and swing was the popular music of the day. These days, though, most of that history is buried under an enormous pyramid, a fake Eiffel Tower, and a make-believe New York City.

The popular wisdom about this town is that everything’s cheap because they want you to gamble. That may have been the case back in the day, but now Vegas is a tourist destination for the whole family, and even the most obscure magician or comedian charges $50 a ticket.

At least I’m staying in one of the last surviving hotels from the golden era of Vegas. The Sahara was built in 1952, and it looks it. It’s far down on The Strip — actually off the main part of The Strip, as far as I can tell. The only other hotels and casinos near here are the Las Vegas Hilton and the Stratosphere. Except for the color TV and the wireless Internet access, it’s easy to believe that this room was occupied by John and Mary from Wisconsin on their first big trip back in the late 50s.

To summarize: It’s fantastic that so many workers are able to build a life here with a good wage and decent healthcare. That’s a good thing, and I hope for their sake that this place keeps going strong. But for my sake, I hope the next one of these meetings is somewhere else.

For information on UNITE HERE Local 226 in Las Vegas, visit their Web site. For more about the Sahara, check out this interactive timeline.

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A rough day for American workers

The Bush-dominated National Labor Relations Board handed down a crucial ruling today in the Kentucky River case. The basic idea: Nurses and many other workers who assign work to others are now “supervisors,” meaning they can’t join a union. Read Jonathan Tasini’s excellent analysis of this grim development.

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A change of plan (New Jersey, Part 1)

As of Friday at 2 p.m., this was my plan for the weekend:

  • Have dinner with my family on Friday evening
  • Take Bernie to the Rhinos playoff game
  • Spend a lazy Saturday with Jen and the boys
  • Announce a game for the vintage base ball playoffs at Genesee Country Village on Sunday

And then, at a few minutes after 2 p.m., I got a call from the HQ of my union in New York City, asking me to hop on a plane and fly to New Jersey to lead a campaign for five days. So here I am, ensconced in a hotel room, glued to my cell phone and my e-mail account as I work to coordinate a team of seven people for an event early next week.

I cannot tell a lie: It’s kinda fun. I work for a union local, rather than the HQ, so I don’t have to travel too far, with the exception of the occasional trip to one of the cities upstate. That’s a nice arrangement, because I’m home with my family a fair amount. But it’s fun to get out of town and help some workers fight for what they deserve. It’s exciting to hit the ground running and to try to pull off a big event with a short amount of time. And it’s gratifying to know that the reason I do all this is so some folks are better able to defend themselves against a ravenous corporation which is trying to steal their benefits.

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Hotel Workers Rising!

Hotel Workers Rising

Every day, in American and Canadian hotels, hundreds of thousands of men and women make the beds, cook the food, take out the trash, do the laundry, and clean the rooms. Most of these people make a non-living wage. Now, the union I work for, UNITE HERE, has launched Hotel Workers Rising, a campaign to raise the standard of living for all hotel workers, and to give more of those workers the benefits of a union. I urge you to visit the Web site and add your voice to those calling for fair treatment for hotel workers. Thanks.

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