Shreveport The 37th annual leadership conference for Local 100 United Labor Unions was held this year in Shreveport, Louisiana at the Roadway Inn near the airport, just off of Interstate 20 between that city and Dallas and only miles away from the I-49 the fast track from south Louisiana, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans coming north and Little Rock and other Arkansas cities coming south and almost the same distance from US 59 going south to Houston. There were the usual issues settling in as rooms were shifted and abandoned, internet on the floors but not the meeting rooms, but there was swimsuit talk once the pool was examined even in the 98-degree heat. It was shaping up to be the typically great leadership conference.
There were some stories from leaders and organizers at the conference that were too wonderful not to share.
A leader from New Orleans in our city janitorial subcontract told a story about working as a housekeeper at the Landmark Hotel on Rampart for years. When the housekeeping director tried to raise the room quota from fifteen to twenty-one to be cleaned daily she, backed by her co-workers, said, “no, way, unless….” The “unless” was $5 per room for each additional room cleaned. It took a couple of days, but, oh, yes, they won it all. If only we could bottle that!
There was a plenary discussion on the changing nature of the workplace. When I asked who was familiar with the gig economy of the more than forty in the room almost none of the leaders knew what I was talking about. Once we dove deeper and talked about Uber, “apps,” and the dangers to workers from these precarious, no benefit, random contingent jobs, one Houston leader spoke up, saying she knew what I was talking about. She had earlier explained in another workshop how she had moved over from working as an Aramark worker part-time during football season when she realized she could make more working the same job as a temp through their labor supplier, so I knew she was savvy. She told about sometimes picking up extra work using an app called ShiftGig where she could make $14 an hour usually. After a couple of minutes of describing the pros and mainly the cons, the session was interrupted by questions about Shiftgig, how you spelled it, and whether they were working in any other cities where we were. Not exactly the moral of the workshop, and it turned out they were only working in New Orleans and Houston in our area. You never know.
One hard to forget story was told by Steven Stokes, now working for Local 100 as an organizer in Houston, but a veteran of the old HOTROC organizing campaign in New Orleans more than twenty years ago which began his career as a union staffer. He told about his first door knocking experience on the Aramark election campaign at the Superdome. He was being trained by Deborah Axt, a HOTOC lead organizer who is now a lawyer and the co-director of Making the Road, the well-known New York based community and labor organization. They were deep into a visit with a young worker, maybe 18 or 19. They had been getting zero traction raising issues around wages and health insurance that had worked in other visits, but he and Deborah could tell after ten or fifteen minutes that they were not engaging him. Finally, Steven asked him an open-ended question about what he would like to see changed at his job, and suddenly he lit up, saying, yes, there was something he wanted changed. What, Steven asked? “Well, they used to give us a super hot dog and chips for the shift meal and now they only give us a regular hot dog. We have to get that changed!” Welcome to the union, young brother, and welcome to the wonderful world of organizing, Steven!
There are a whole lot of lessons about listening and organizing in that story that started Steven on his path as an organizer. Steven said there was a coda to the story that was equally amazing. Five years ago, he was in a development session with other organizers somewhere and the trainer in making his point about home visits on organizing drives told the “hot dog story” that had been Steven’s baptism into the craft fifteen years before.
Who knows how it survived and who told whom and kept the flame alive, but that’s part of the heart and soul of this work. I wonder what experiences shared by leaders at this session will still be repeated and told years from now as the work marches on.