June 6, 2019

June 6, 2019

A Great Union Threatens a Strike and Makes a Questionable Endorsement. As usual, the union of America’s hotel and (some) food-service workers is having an interesting week.

Earlier this year, UNITE HERE executed a brilliant, multi-city series of strikes at Marriott Hotels. Its members walked picket lines holding signs bearing the inspired slogan, “One Job Should Be Enough”—a reference to the fact that, in the high-cost cities where their jobs were located, some of them were compelled to work a second job after finishing a full-time shift at their hotel. The slogan resonated with the public and the press; the workers maintained a stay-off-the-job discipline; and the strike was settled with considerable wage hikes across the nation.

This week, the 11,000 UNITE HERE-member workers who prepare and deliver the food and drink to American, United, and Delta flights at the airports in 21 major cities are also threatening to go on strike, with strike authorization votes scheduled for the next two weeks. For this largely low-wage workforce, the union is demanding an hourly wage floor of $15 and more affordable health insurance. 

There’s a problem, though. The catering company employees’ right to bargain collectively was established not by the National Labor Relations Act but rather the 1926 Railway Labor Act, under whose terms they cannot legally strike unless given a go-ahead by the National Mediation Board, a majority of whose members are Trump appointees. They’re no more likely to get that go-ahead than Trump is to go through a day without tweeting insults.

Here’s where UNITE HERE’s extensive member involvement, socialization, and preparation makes a big difference. If unable to strike, the workers still could “work by the book,” and thereby slow down the process of getting food and drink to the planes, just as the summer travel surge starts surging. As well, it shouldn’t be that hard for the union’s public relations staff to convince both the public and the press that airlines that treat their passengers so shabbily also treat their workers shabbily, too. Such an action will be a test of the union’s vaunted mobilization capacities, but UNITE HERE is one of the relatively few unions that may be up to the challenge.

Meanwhile, in another part of the UNITE HERE forest, its New York hotel local today endorsed the presidential campaign of Mayor Bill de Blasio. The local is storied for winning excellent contracts for its members; it even provides its members and their families with its own medical care services, as Bob Kuttner once documented in these pages. It’s also known for making a number of political endorsements on the most transactional of criteria, all consequences to the general good to the contrary notwithstanding. Such were the considerations that lay behind its endorsement of Republican George Pataki for governor of New York (which had something to do, as I recall, with the union’s ability to organize workers at a tribal-owned casino). De Blasio, of course, is no Pataki; he’s been an excellent mayor, supporting groundbreaking policies for New York’s workers. Still, Bernie Sanders has been an excellent senator for Vermont’s workers, as has Elizabeth Warren for Massachusetts workers, Governor Jay Inslee for Washington state workers—you get the picture. What prompted the New York local’s endorsement of de Blasio isn’t his overall record on workers’ issues; it’s his stance against Airbnb’s incursions into the New York tourism market and its effect on hotel workers. 

Based on every poll under the sun, de Blasio is almost certainly beyond helping in the presidential contest—and if he does pick up any votes, it will likely be at the expense of Warren and Sanders, fellow lefties who, unlike Hizzoner, actually have a shot at winning the nomination. On the other hand, the New York local is not beyond mayoral helping in its fight to protect its members from the income-eroding specter of AirBnb. 

So it goes—another typical week at UNITE HERE.