Hotel Employees Union

HOTEL EMPLOYEES AND RESTAURANT EMPLOYEES INTERNATIONAL UNION LOCAL 11: LOS ANGELES

Katrina Van Heest



Labor Tactics and Textual Politics among the Urban Working Poor

The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HEREIU) Local 11 in Los Angeles is a labor organization constantly engaged in a grassroots process of fostering solidarity in order to gain power for workers marginalized by low-wage employment. [1] From interactions with a union organizer, through engagement of its members, from observation of hotel sites, visiting union offices, attending a negotiations committee meeting, walking precincts on election day with an immigrant union worker, accompanying organizers on house visits, conducting formal interviews, and interacting socially with union staff and hotel workers on numerous occasions, a degree of intimate knowledge of the operations and rhythms and commitments of Local 11 has been gained. Such knowledge allows Local 11 to be used with some qualifications as a refracting lens for critical observations about a particular social formation, its dynamics, initiatives, politics, and practices, with particular attention to the manner in which texts are made to function within it.

Local 11 serves the broad region of Los Angeles County and, through its many campaigns, has organized some twenty hotels in Los Angeles County. [2] One hotel worker interviewed for this study described Local 11’s internal structure as hierarchical, consisting of many complex interrelationships among its employees. [3] Essentially, Local 11 is structured in ways that both mimic and defy more corporate models. Under a president, secretary-treasurer and three directors, the organizing staff is made up of over forty professionals. Although major unions such as HEREIU tend to recruit “middle-class college kids who are still driven by their ideology and their politics,” a majority of Local 11 organizers were once workers at hotel sites. [4] The others come with degrees in related disciplines, from like-minded organizations or other unions. In addition to the full-fledged organizers, the union depends on inside contacts in non-union hotel sites where HERE launches underground campaigns. These workers are committed to making changes and collaborating with Local 11 to share intimate knowledge of the inner-workings of hotels.  Inside contacts have a special ability to gauge for organizers the workers’ receptivity levels to organizing, which uniquely positions them to build strong relationships and trust between the union and the workers.

The socio-economic demographics of HERE Local 11’s membership have everything to do with the racialized division of labor specific to Los Angeles. Approximately “[f]orty-four percent of the population of L.A. County is Latino, and the job population is 80 percent Latino.” [5] HERE, along with the Service Employees International Union, represents those workers in low-wage jobs, and therefore increased immigration affects the livelihood of the union. [6] Despite the fact that “[f]oreign-born workers are less likely than U.S.-born workers to be in a union, mainly because they are more likely to be employed in the underground economy,” [7] HERE has channeled the energy, immediacy and, often, militancy characteristic of immigrant workers, and immigrant workers have in turn changed how unions operate. [8]

Scripturalizing and Socializing Practices

Over fifty percent of the HERE national budget goes toward organizing non-union workplaces, the main goal of which is to inform workers at unorganized workplaces about HERE and encourage their support and to sign union authorization cards. [9] The key organizing tactic is the house visit—a situation designed to establish a relationship that secures a worker’s trust and support of the organizing efforts. Once the union accesses the address of a potentially supportive worker, one or two organizers will approach the worker at home to discuss working conditions and, eventually, the union itself. Although informal, small talk provides insight into what holds value for the workers. Anything from scheduling information, hobbies, the character of family ties and humorous anecdotes to financial concerns, political alliances, and religious affiliations qualifies as notable information for understanding more about the worker and what will sway his or her disposition to Local 11’s involvement in the workplace. The precariousness of the union’s position in an unorganized hotel means that house visits tread on sensitive ground and call for discretion in terms of the topics broached, information given, and pressure applied. Encouragement of risk-taking must be balanced with tangible support, such as confirmation of union progress. The repeated assertion that workers at other hotels have successfully organized—and that these other workers now work under agreeable terms stipulated by a legal contract—becomes the mantra of the organizer when reassuring workers of their involvement.

Ancient social formations referred to in modern scholarship as “voluntary associations” can help flesh out an understanding of aspects of contemporary urban union politics—and vice versa. While “voluntary association” is an intentionally liquid social category, it can be used to designate persons who collect themselves on the basis of common interests and goals, whether work-related, social or “religious.” As labor organizations like Local 11 make it their business to identify, nurture, and create social relationships between co-workers and connect them to the larger unionized worker community, first century evangelists identified the enormous potential of tapping into the momentum of existing organizations. The apostle Paul exploited these established social networks in founding churches: Paul himself was a craftsman and so could have traveled in circles of friends and colleagues who shared “professional” interests. [10] Strategic social organizers know that a movement has a much stronger chance of survival if it can draw on decentralized networks of self-sustaining social cells for vitality than to depend on the charisma of an individual or small managerial group. This is a documented and observable approach, then, that at least transcends two millennia. The question now is how these groups are set up to construct stability and direction through texts in addition to this social interconnectedness.

The organizers’ portrayal of house visits emphasized personal contact and relationship development as central objectives. However, from a newly-organized worker perspective, the bargaining agreement, or contract, solidifies union alliance. I asked a housekeeper at the newly-contracted Four Points Sheraton what initially piqued her interest in the union. The fact that she would have job security and that her increased wages and benefits would be established in writing was most compelling for her. [11] At a committee meeting in preparation for the contract negotiations at the same hotel, another worker showed that he assumed that an existing HERE contract with another hotel would be the exact document ratified at his workplace. He seemed surprised that the document was not yet set in stone: “If we already have the Viceroy contract, what do we need to discuss?” [12] His question indicates some impatience for the deliberative process and a preoccupation with signing a contract that he does not expect to play a great role in authoring. In a very real sense, he granted the written word permission to act on his behalf and to act as the principal authority over the hotel. Despite organizers’ insistence that the contract is a mechanism to defend workers rather than a substitute for their initiative on the job, workers fall prey to the culturally pervasive attitude of letting documents regulate interaction.

Organizing and Scripturalizing

Workers who are relatively new to union culture understand the written contract as a guarantee of job security and decent pay and benefits because that is precisely how the union presents it. The organizers—and those workers who assume more union leadership over longer periods of time—share a focus on legal documentation, but they are far more convinced that the contract is a malleable tool. As an agreement between workers and their employers, the parties constantly have a say in how the text manifests itself in the workplace. Cooperative revision or actions that force the employer to acknowledge the workers’ perspective can always redirect the contract’s power. Union staff members and the committed workers never allow the text to completely obscure the authority of the people who ratify it. The relationship-building and actions of solidarity aspects of union organizing are crucial to the organizers, while the preoccupation with strengthening social networking is rendered almost invisible to the workers whose union allegiance is still in the early stages of formation. Although organizers sincerely prioritize worker empowerment, a case can be made that the union’s organizing activities consistently point toward a contract as a means of realizing that objective and that the benefits of contract are used to garner worker support.

Local 11 downplays the role of contract in favor of an emphasis on relationship-building at the same time as the union’s rhetorical use of contract remains a most persuasive tool in organizing new hotels. This tension is operative in both the constitution and maintenance of the community, and this is what qualifies HERE’s unionizing methods as (a politics of) scripturalizing: a rhetorical de-emphasis on a “text” and a simultaneous portrayal of it as the sine qua non of occupational security. Local 11 gives low-wage workers many avenues to gain dignity, justice and respect in their lives, even outside the workplace. In translating this idea to the workers, though, the material goal of contract and the impression that such a document can ensure long-lasting workplace satisfaction takes center stage. The phenomenon of obfuscating text-centricity undergirds the ongoing techniques of Local 11, a community that on some important levels recognizes the part it plays in assembling and employing its scripture for social effect. Nevertheless, a collective forgetting occurs whereby the workers tend to defer power to the written contract rather than recognizing that such authority is first and foremost theirs to give.

 

 
[1] On 8 July 2004, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union merged with the Union of Needletrades, Textiles and Industrial Employees and is now officially known as UNITE HERE.
[2] HERE is used in this paper as a synonym for the Local 11 chapter. When the international union is meant, the anagram HEREIU will be used.
[3] Unnamed, interview by author, minidisc recording, Los Angeles, Ca., 16 November 2003.
[4] Henry Bayer, head of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Illinois, quoted in Harold Meyerson, “Organize or Die,” American Prospect 14, no. 8 (September 2003): 40.
[5] Gordon Smith, “Labor thriving in L.A. County; Unions gain muscle, draw national notice, by enlisting Latinos,” San Diego Union-Tribune (23 Sept 2000). LexisNexis™ Academic (22 October 2003).
[6] Harold Meyerson, “A Clean Sweep: The SEIU’s Organizing Drive for Janitors Shows How Unionization Can Raise Wages,” American Prospect 11, no. 15 (June 19-July 3 2000) : 7-8. WilsonSelectPlus (22 October 2003).
[7] Nancy Cleeland, “Unions Gain Ground in Golden State,” Los Angeles Times, 31 August 2003, sec. C, p. 1. Newsbank (1 November 2003).
[8] Peter Olney qtd. in David Bacon, “Labor Earthquake in LA,” Zmagazine (Apr 1996), <http://zena.secureform.com/Znet/zmag/zarticle.cfm?Url=articles/april96bacon.htm > (1 November 2003).
[9] UNITE HERE, “What is UNITE HERE?” < http://www.unitehere.org/about/ > (16 August 2004).
[10] Richard S. Ascough suggests, “Paul uses voluntary association language to produce [a] different community ethos” (“The Thessalonian Community as a Professional Voluntary Association,” Journal of Biblical Literature 119, no. 2 (S 2000): 315). In other words, Paul developed already-formed social networks to constitute a new community of his own invention, cf. Ronald F. Hock, The Social Context of Paul's Ministry : Tentmaking and Apostleship (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980).
[11] Unnamed, interview by author, minidisc recording, Los Angeles, Ca., 2 December 2003
[12] Four Points Sheraton Committee Meeting with HERE Local 11, 30 October 2003.

 
 
     
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