Student Blogger Study USA

Marching with UNITE HERE!

A group of protesters gather outside of a Hilton hotel, wearing red t-shirts and holding white picket signs.

Every semester, one student from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Aidan Sponheim will be HECUA’s student blogger for the Inequality in America program this spring semester. Aidan is a third-year student at the University of Minnesota, majoring in Psychology. In his newest post, Aidan describes the UNITE HERE! May 1st march for workers’ rights.

Hotels in downtown Minneapolis were always a mystery to me. In the few instances I passed by them walking or biking the streets of the city I never thought much of them. Not only did I associate hotels with family road trips, breakfast buffets and hours watching The Food Channel, I found them quite off-putting and excessive. I think this also added to my lack of care for what they were. As a result I never truly considered what occurs behind their doors and especially what labor is done to keep them running. I never did think of the hotel workers; all the housemaids, the cooks, and the front desk clerks that made my family’s stay so comfortable. I never considered how much money they would be making per hour, or what additional jobs they were working to support their families at home or how well they were being treated by their managers and not to mention the hotel company itself. I never considered the necessity for worker unity throughout hotels, the importance that worker power has for the cleaners or desk clerks that feel they have no power over the “big guys”.

I never considered any of this until I started interning at the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation and began to understand the vast network of unions, worker centers, and other organizations that create the strong worker community in Minneapolis, Minnesota and across the country. Working as a social media intern at MRLF, I have been exposed to a vast network of affiliates and worker organizations and their efforts in union and worker movements. From Education Minnesota’s district education town hall forums with local representatives, to Amazon worker protests organized by Awood Center, I have nonstop exposure to what is happening in the worker world. A union that caught my eye from the start at MRLF was UNITE HERE!. As a relatively new union, formed in 2004 through a merger between UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees) and HERE (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union), UNITE HERE! covers an incredible spread of workers around the country. On the forefront of the intersectional issues pertaining to immigration and workers’ rights, UNITE HERE! embraces the importance of immigrant workers in this country’s economy and they are a leading advocate for equity within hotels, airports, food Service, gambling, textile manufacturing and transportation.

On a local level, UNITE HERE Local 17 provides union support to workers throughout the Twin Cities and surrounding suburbs. Being involved with unions in the labor federation’s region, I have increasingly become aware of the Local 17’s work in the downtown Minneapolis area. With over twelve unionized hotels in the city, UNITE HERE! is working nonstop to sustain union presence and power at its properties. This work increases tenfold when their worker contracts with hotels are due to expire. Worker contracts are the backbone to union power in companies. Providing strict agreements around benefits, wages, safety, time off and job security, unions and companies negotiate a contract that eventually results in workplace equity. It just so happens that UNITE HERE! Local 17 is in the midst of bargaining for eight contract renewals for unionized hotels. This is where these downtown mystery hotels I was talking about come into play.

Following in the steps of a Marriott Hotel UNITE HERE! 7,000-worker strike this fall that resulted in contract ratification, increased pay, and increased worker safety measures, UNITE HERE! Local 17 chose to organize a march to elevate the voice of downtown hotel workers. Under the slogan “One Job Should Be Enough,” Local 17 organizers highlighted the realities that most downtown hotel workers face. In a Union Advocate article, Local 17 members and organizers expressed the need for increased wages amongst workers and spoke openly about the additional job(s) they need to work to support their families. They pointed out that ninety percent of the hotel workforce in downtown are either minorities or immigrants, both of which are vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation by managers (see this Atlantic article for more information on how immigrant hotel workers are treated in this country). As a result of their organizing, the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation became heavily involved, mobilizing dozens of other organizations (unions and other) to either endorse UNITE HERE! Local 17 in their contract fight or march with them in solidarity.

A group of protesters walk between two skyscrapers, along a wide city road.
UNITE HERE workers and allies march through downtown Minneapolis.

The march occurred on May 1st, International Workers’ Day. Established by union and labor leaders in reaction to the Haymarket Riot of 1886, International Workers’ Day (also known as May Day) celebrates workers and labor victories around the world. It was a perfect day to spend the afternoon rallying and marching for Local 17 contracts. Representing the Minneapolis Labor Federation, I was overjoyed participating in both the rally and march. I think among the many feelings I felt that afternoon, the strongest was overwhelming excitement. The rally, which took place on Nicollet Avenue beside Peavey Plaza, was brimming with energy, filled with inspirational speeches given by politicians, organizers and union leaders. With hundreds of marchers, we took to the downtown streets–and occasionally the entire street–chanting “One job should be enough!” into the city. This was the first real, intentional action I’ve participated in, and marching there was was truly special for me. I felt safe and empowered to speak the truths I know and to fully embrace the worker movement I have been so closely a part of this past semester. The event motivated me, and got me energized to continue supporting these workers, their movement, and others like it as an ally.

As we made our way down Marquette Avenue, I began to recognize those hotels I used to pass and think nothing of. I realized how many there were, I felt how domineering and invasive they became, and finally understood how much of a presence they have in the downtown area. The march ended right outside The Hilton Minneapolis. Its window-covered walls seemed gigantic compared to the group of us chanting outside its doors. I took some time to take it in, to think of how many of those Hiltons are out in the world and who exactly is behind all of them. I could feel the weight of what these workers are up against. I then looked at the people surrounding me; the union members, the politicians, the organizers, and the allies and I felt these feelings disappear. I realized I was where the real power was, and even if our power seemed small, it was a healthy, sustainable power that persists. It’s backed by thousands of other workers and it has a huge potential to change this country and the world.

To find unionized hotels for your next outing search HERE!

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