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Unite Here Is 85% Unemployed and Still Fighting Like Hell

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No union in Amer­i­ca has been posi­tioned more direct­ly in the bulls­eye of this pandemic’s eco­nom­ic dev­as­ta­tion than Unite Here, the 300,000-member union of hotel, food ser­vice and casi­no work­ers. In April, its mem­bers were suf­fer­ing a stag­ger­ing 98% unem­ploy­ment rate. Almost six months lat­er, the union is stuck at about 85% unem­ploy­ment. Despite that, it is also the only group deter­mined enough to wage a large-scale door knock­ing cam­paign for the Joe Biden tick­et, at a time when the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has com­plete­ly aban­doned its ground game. 

Even as Repub­li­cans push to reopen busi­ness­es and Wall Street con­tin­ues to boom, the sta­tus of Unite Here?—?known as an aggres­sive and polit­i­cal­ly active union that wields seri­ous pow­er with­in entire indus­tries?—?paints a pic­ture of a work­ing class still mired in an exis­ten­tial cri­sis of long term unem­ploy­ment. D. Tay­lor, Unite Here’s gruff inter­na­tion­al pres­i­dent, says that the col­lapse of the trav­el and tourism indus­try that dec­i­mat­ed the union’s jobs con­tin­ues to grind on. ?“There’s no busi­ness trav­el, there’s no con­ven­tions, there’s no for­eign trav­el. The hotel indus­try has real­ly nev­er reopened from the pan­dem­ic,” he says. Like­wise, the shut­down of major sport­ing events and of many col­lege and uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus­es has put many of the union’s indus­tri­al food ser­vice work­ers out of work. And the sched­uled Octo­ber 1 expi­ra­tion of the Con­gres­sion­al air­line res­cue pack­age in the CARES Act will almost cer­tain­ly mean lay­offs for many of the union’s air­port work­ers as well. Even in Las Vegas, a rel­a­tive bright spot that has seen some resump­tion in busi­ness, more than half of Unite Here’s mem­bers are still unem­ployed, accord­ing to Taylor. 

The loss of dues mon­ey from all of those unem­ployed mem­bers has been a large blow to Unite Here’s own inter­nal finances. But the union has not stopped work­ing. Besides help­ing mem­bers win exten­sions of health ben­e­fits and nav­i­gate bro­ken state unem­ploy­ment sys­tems (which Tay­lor calls ?“a joke”), most of the union’s bat­tles are now polit­i­cal. One of their top issues in cities across the nation now is try­ing to ensure that laid off mem­bers retain long term ?“recall rights” to get their old jobs back when busi­ness resumes, so that employ­ers can’t use the pan­dem­ic shut­down as an excuse to get rid of expe­ri­enced union work­ers in favor of new, low­er-priced replacements. 

On a nation­al lev­el, Tay­lor says Con­gress des­per­ate­ly needs to pass anoth­er stim­u­lus bill like the HEROES act to pre­vent more peo­ple from los­ing health care cov­er­age dur­ing this cri­sis, and that there must be a coor­di­nat­ed nation­al strat­e­gy to keep Covid in check. He is not opti­mistic about either. ?“I kind of think we’re back to the ?‘Oliv­er Twist’ days when you deal with this admin­is­tra­tion and Sen­ate Repub­li­cans,” he says. 
Joe Biden marches with Unite Here members in Las Vegas in February of 2020.

Unite Here, like most unions out­side of law enforce­ment, is back­ing the Biden-Har­ris tick­et. They held a vir­tu­al event with Kamala Har­ris this week. (A UH spokesper­son says the union is spend­ing ?“sev­er­al mil­lions” on the elec­tion, and is pulling in addi­tion­al fund­ing from out­side sources as well). At that event, Tay­lor urged Har­ris not to give up on old-fash­ioned door knock­ing?—?some­thing that Unite Here itself is pur­su­ing in the key swing states of Neva­da, Ari­zona, and Florida. 

In fact, the union’s com­mit­ment to knock­ing on doors despite the pan­dem­ic makes it unique in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. Politi­co report­ed last month that the Trump cam­paign is knock­ing on a mil­lion doors a week, and the Biden cam­paign is knock­ing on zero. Tay­lor says that the union has a strict set of safe­ty pro­to­cols, includ­ing social dis­tanc­ing and masks for their vol­un­teers, who car­ry extra masks to hand out to any­one who answers the door with­out one. Thus far, they have not had any cas­es of Covid as a result of the pro­gram. The union plans to knock on a half mil­lion doors in Neva­da, Ari­zona, and Flori­da by elec­tion day. 

“I don’t think there’s any replace­ment for it. I’ve been try­ing to urge every pro­gres­sive group” to start door knock­ing as well, Tay­lor says. ?“I think if they don’t, it’s at their own per­il. Door knock­ing has been a tra­di­tion for decades, and it works. You can’t talk to some­body in a TV screen. There’s a safe way to do it.” 

Despite Taylor’s urg­ing, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty itself seems to have made the deci­sion to for­sake door knock­ing entire­ly dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. (Biden’s cam­paign man­ag­er said ear­li­er this month that ?“those met­rics don’t have any impact on reach­ing vot­ers.) The Biden cam­paign, there­fore, finds itself in the odd posi­tion of rely­ing on a union made up almost entire­ly of peo­ple who are cur­rent­ly unem­ployed to knock on doors in swing states for them, shrug­ging off the union’s strate­gic advice, even as the cam­paign wel­comes its mate­r­i­al support. 

For D. Tay­lor, defeat­ing the ?“patho­log­i­cal liar” Don­ald Trump is a neces­si­ty?—?but get­ting Biden elect­ed is only the begin­ning of orga­nized labor’s work. He is adamant that unions must con­tin­ue to orga­nize, despite the fact that many are just try­ing to sur­vive, in order to avoid the long term fate of ?“try­ing to pro­tect a small­er and small­er piece of the work force.” He is equal­ly adamant that unions need to lean hard on Biden in order to make him do what must be done for work­ing peo­ple. ?“If we don’t put pres­sure on folks on an ongo­ing basis, they rarely do the hard things that need to be done,” Tay­lor says. 

“I think this [elec­tion] is gonna be a barn burn­er. If any­one assumes vic­to­ry, that’s a guar­an­teed defeat.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected]


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