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Category: Labor movement

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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The future of labor organizing

As you know, I’m a union organizer for UNITE HERE in Rochester, NY. I recently attended the first national organizing conference put on by Change to Win, the union federation that split earlier this year from the AFL-CIO.

If you’d like to read my report on the conference, you’ll find it at Joan Collins-Lambert’s excellent labor blog, Work Related.

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A silent vigil for economic justice

(24 October 2005) BRIGHTON – It’s 7 p.m. A light rain is falling. Snaking down Ambassador Drive in Brighton is a long line of silent workers, candles held in cups under their umbrellas. The line moves slowly down the street, a silent testament to labor solidarity in an age of “every man for himself.”

The men and women of Caldwell Manufacturing, proud members of IUE-CWA Local 81331, are bringing their fight for justice and security into the neighborhood where Caldwell’s owners live. The message? Ted and Jim Boucher are letting their greed overcome their family history.

Caldwell Manufacturing makes parts for windows – parts that you’ll find in most houses, including those on Ambassador Drive. For three generations, Caldwell has been run by the Boucher family, and the company has long provided good union jobs for Rochester workers. Now, though, Ted and Jim Boucher are attempting to bust the union by removing the union security clause from the workers’ contract. If they’re successful, Caldwell would be an open shop, a move that would pave the way to remove the union completely. And that would likely be the first domino in a long chain of anti-union activity in the Rochester area.

As the vigil moves through the streets of Brighton, keeping a silent watch, it may be difficult to connect these 50 rain-soaked workers and community members to the larger fight for Rochester’s future. But the connection is clear. Rochester needs good jobs with a living wage, health care, pension benefits, and job security. One proven way to provide those jobs is a union contract. These workers and their supporters in the community are fighting for the very life of this area.

Two by two, pairs of workers knock on the doors of the homes in the Bouchers’ neighborhood. They politely explain why the vigil is happening, and hand the residents a flyer outlining the situation. The response is largely positive, and the effect is immediate. By the end of the vigil, a local trial lawyer who lives on the street has come forward, offering to put a pro-worker sign in his front yard.

As the rain falls, the workers quietly return to their cars. This night’s action is over, but the morning brings the promise of more to come. The fight for Rochester’s future is under way.

Which side are you on?

For more information on the Caldwell strike, and on other local labor issue, visit Joan Collins-Lamberts’ blog, Work Related.

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Ogden police protect and serve … anti-union bosses

OGDEN, NY — Security guards bully workers. Workers call police to protect them from guards. Police arrive and hassle workers. Security company turns out to be owned by the brother of one of the cops. That cop is also moonlighting as a security guard. Welcome to Ogden!

The Ogden Police are routinely called to the picket line at Caldwell Manufacturing, where the workers have been on strike since August. Ted Boucher, owner of Caldwell Manufacturing, brought in scabs to staff the production lines, and he also hired guards from C.O.P. Security to direct the cars out of the parking lot as the workers marched across the entrance. That the workers are legally entitled to picket in that spot is of no consequence to the guards who enforce Caldwell’s anti-union policies.

Recently, the C.O.P. Security guards have been roughing up the strikers. Security guards have knocked down workers. Just days ago, one of the guards shoved a woman with both hands. In the face of this escalation, the union (IUE-CWA Local 331) has begun calling the police on their own behalf. But when the police arrive — even when they’ve been called by the union — they immediately bypass the workers and head straight for the guards to get the story. Turns out that one of the security guards is Sergeant Dale Barton of the Ogden Police Department. That’s right, he works for C.O.P. Security and for the police force the workers depend on to protect them from C.O.P. Security. Better still, Dale Barton’s brother is Rick Barton – the president of C.O.P. Security.

Why are the workers on strike? Because Ted Boucher, the owner of the company, decided not to bargain in good faith with the workers. He was censured by the NLRB, and he has appealed that ruling.

As Joan Collins-Lambert wrote on her blog Work Related: “The strike at Caldwell is about something more enduring than tomorrow’s paycheck. It’s about a union’s right to exist, and about a company’s obligation to bargain in good faith with its union workers. Among other things, Caldwell management wants to remove union security clauses in the collective bargaining agreement, and eliminate dues check-off. In other words, it wants the union to commit suicide.” That about sums it up.

So Boucher appealed, and the union workers reluctantly but unanimously decided to strike.

Last Thursday, Sept. 29, was a typical afternoon on the line. The most belligerent of the rent-a-cops, whom I’ll call Dom, shoved another worker today. The cops showed up and immediately pulled aside one of the strikers, keeping him in the back of a patrol car for about 30 minutes before letting him go. I talked to the cops, and told them that if anyone needed to be removed, it was Dom, not the worker. I pointed out that Dom consistently bullies the workers, while the police do nothing to protect the workers’ legal right to picket. The cop was nonresponsive.

Later in the afternoon, a woman pulled up beside one of the police cars to talk to the officer inside the car. Seeing a golden opportunity, I immediately began making fun of the officer over my megaphone. When the woman left, the officer — Lockwood by name — rode up to me and accused me of slandering his wife. I said it was in fact him I was yelling at, and I told him he should be ashamed of himself for protecting the “rights” of Ted Boucher over the rights of the workers. The workers surrounded me as Lockwood and I argued back and forth for a few minutes, until I got bored and walked away.

When it was time to go home, I did what everyone else before me had done and made a perfectly safe u-turn on the road to get back to the main highway. Within seconds, Lockwood was behind me with his lights flashing. One of my coworkers was in the car with me, and we were laughing uproariously as Lockwood approached the car to write me a ticket for “making an illegal u-turn on a curve.” He wrote up the ticket and held it in the window of my car. I took out my pad and pen and asked him for his name. “It’s right there on the ticket,” he said, but I took my time writing it down anyway. “I have an emergency call,” Lockwood protested, “take the ticket.

So a company breaks the law, is censured, and then appeals, forcing its employees to take their fight to the street. The police support the company, taking sides against their neighbors. There’s a serious conflict of interest at work in Ogden, and it’s directly harming the workers on the picket line.

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Back in the movement

Once again, I’m a labor union organizer.

I know, I know. I said I’d never do that kind of work again. I had a really negative experience the last time I did it, and I got burned out in a hurry. This time, though, I was talked into it by my friend Mike Roberts, who just became the organizing director for UNITE HERE in Rochester. Mike and I talked about the gig for a long time, and he laid out his vision for the organizing department. His ideas sounded exciting and militant, so I joined up.

UNITE HERE, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is a recently merged union. UNITE was the textile workers union (the folks in the movie Norma Rae, for example). As textile jobs moved to the Third World, UNITE became the union of Xerox workers and other industrial folks. HERE is the hotel and restaurant union. The two decided to merge recently, and now we’re working to organize workers in hotels, industrial laundries, call centers, and food service operators.

I’ll tell you more as the job develops. I won’t always be able to talk in specifics, of course, but I’ll do my best.

In the meantime, you can find out more about my union with these two links:

And while you’re surfing the Web, check out Work Related, a great new blog about Rochester’s labor movement, written by labor educator Joan Collins-Lambert.

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