Journalists and hotel housekeepers: Why both need a union

Does a 20-something middle-class, college-educated online journalist have anything in the world in common with a hotel housekeeper, casino cocktail waitress or a seamstress in a clothing factory?

D. Taylor, president of one of the nation's biggest unions, thinks so, which suggests why he believes unionization is an obvious route for many reporters and editors.

"The idea of people coming together and getting something better has never gone out of style," he says. "You don't fight a war with an individual soldier."

Taylor (whose given name is Donald) is president of the 270,000-member UNITE HERE, a combination of seminal labor organizations with hallowed, and at times rancorous, histories. It doesn't represent journalists, and has no plans to ever do so. But he's cognizant of recent organizing victories by other unions at Gawker Media, Salon and the Guardian.

He's an unusual sort of union leader and far more cerebral than the caricature many might possess. He's a graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, whose entry into the union world was as a shop steward at a restaurant in Washington, D.C. His first paid union job was as an organizer in a Reno/Tahoe local.

What's now known as UNITE HERE stems from the 2004 merger of the Union of Needle trades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE) and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE).

Their separate pasts are vivid and include organizing some of the most oppressed workers in the nation, including big-city waitresses and rural textile workers in the South (if you want a sense of the latter, go to Netflix and get "Norma Rae," the 1979 movie that starred Sally Field, who won the Oscar for her portrayal of a small town factory worker).

The histories also include deep corruption and organized crime influence, notably on the HERE side, and a lack of internal democracy. Much of that was cleansed by years of federal investigations and oversight, which dramatically changed HERE and partly explain the ascension to power of John Wilhelm, a Yale University graduate and a Taylor predecessor, and, more so, of Taylor himself. He's tough, thoughtful and socially progressive, with some deep differences with the Obama administration, including on trade policy.

The 2004 merger ran into many problems, including sharp differences between key personalities and in overall strategy. It was undone by 2009 as Taylor was rising in the Las Vegas ranks. Taylor's union maintains the same name as it did at the time of the merger and now represents 270,000 workers, mostly in the hospitality industry. They include housekeepers in hotels, bellmen, food and beverage workers, cocktail waitresses, bartenders, porters, bellmen and front desk employees.

Show up at a major hotel or a big casino and you may well be assisted by one of his members.

But how might any of that reality relate to media workers who'd wonder, "What does that have to do with me?" as they look around at both the unionized ranks of declining mainstream newspapers and local TV newsrooms and the growing number of online journalists at Gawker and elsewhere?

I sat down with Washington-based Taylor at a small coffee house-bakery on Chicago's North Side, where he maintains a home. Attired in shorts and a red T-shirt, he parked his bike outside, prior to a ride along Chicago's lakefront about a mile away.

[caption id="attachment_362717" align="alignright" width="460"]A man shows his support of the strike by employees at the Hyatt Hotel on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, Calif., Thursday, June 9, 2005.  (AP Photo/Reed Saxon) A man shows his support of the strike by employees at the Hyatt Hotel on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, Calif., Thursday, June 9, 2005. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)[/caption]

There's been a lot of stuff going on in the media world as far as unionization. It's way too early to make any blanket generalizations. But do you find it interesting that of late younger-skewing media workers at Gawker, Salon and the Guardian have opted for union representation?

I think it has to do with having some control over their lives in the 24/7 news cycle. People work very hard but need breaks and have to be respected. They want control. And that doesn't address their benefits and salaries, especially in relation to the profits that ownership has or will have.

What about younger workers' general suspicion of larger institutions?

I think a lot of younger folks don't want to be tied into a large institution. But they are interested in social justice and basic fairness. It's up to the labor movement to show we're a way to get both. They will be skeptical of any institution. They will want us to prove we are inclusive and that they will be part of decision-making. But they are practical, skeptical of all institutions, rightfully so, and want to kick the tires and be sure they are part of decision-making. They know the game is rigged right now. No matter how hard they work. They are still going to get stuck. The labor movement has to convince them we are a way to change that.

Given whom you represent---cocktail waitresses, housekeepers, and porters, among others---why should media workers be interested? What's the common denominator?

People have aspirations to have the American Dream. People want to do well for themselves and their loved ones and provide for them and to be independent. I don't think that has to do with whether you're a hotshot journalist or a kitchen worker. It is all the same.

Media workers are professionally skeptical. What do you really tell those with their inherent doubts?

The idea of people coming together and getting something better has never gone out of style. You don't fight a war with an individual soldier. You don't solve most complex math problems by yourself. It takes a whole group to be successful. With success, you should be in a position to get the benefits of that success.

What's the role of technology?

Often there is no correlation between both the increase in productivity and the profits a company enjoys, on the one hand, and how workers benefit from the product of that productivity.

A lot of us in media just simply assume that we now have 24/7 jobs. Our bosses can contact us at any time and we're expected to produce at any time, day or night. Writing stories, tweeting, posting on Facebook is just part of the job description. Is that a mistake?

If you are on 24/7, you don't control your life at all. People will be expected to work hard, yes. But they should also have a quality of life. The reason why people fought for eight-hour days or vacations involved quality of life. As that goes away, your quality of life goes away. And should be able to spend time with your family. And plan a retirement. And have health insurance.

But these are white-collar workers, who may just not see themselves like those with whom they associate union membership, right?

White-collar? Most wear t-shirts! I think the dialogue has changed in the country. A few years ago if you mentioned income inequality, you were considered a socialist. Now everybody is talking about it. You can't have this sort of income disparity continue. You can either have oligarchy or real democracy. I think a younger generation gives me a lot of hope. But it won't be easy. Power never relinquishes control without a fight.

  • Profile picture for user jwarren

    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.


Related News

Email IconGroup 3Facebook IconLinkedIn IconsearchGroupTwitter IconGroup 2YouTube Icon