Category Archives: Labor Organizing

Pandemic Changes Could be Permanent

Chicago          Understand me clearly.  I was lucky.  I had a dawn run from Columbus to Chicago and then onto Atlanta in the weirdness of travel during the pandemic.  It made sense to stay as close to the airport as possible, and I ended up at a Hampton Inn, now a Hilton property, there between the construction of a new parking garage and the rental car return.  Location, location, location, so I was a happy camper on that score.

The Hampton was doing a good business.  The lot was pretty full by my reckoning.  There were a lot of pandemic signs and adjustments.  Masks were required.  Sanitizer was available.  Plexiglass was in front of the front desk.

In a nice move, although they had shut down free breakfast, they at least showed signs of some grace and were giving a nosh to go in the morning.  In my mind, I noted a job or two lost for the workers who once arrived early, got the food together, kept the coffee brewing, and then cleaned up with others when it was over.  A good four-hour shift for a couple of hourly service workers.  I wondered if this would be permanent?  The housekeeping director was passing out the boxed snack.

I was out early for meetings in Marysville, Ohio with my partner on the Voter Purge Project, Steve Tingely-Hock and back after dark to catch up on email, work, and be ready for the first flight connections out to Atlanta.  I walked into the room, and was surprised to see everything just like I had left it.  No coffee had been replenished.  No bed made.  Despite the notes about where to put the towels for cleaning or reuse, everything was the same.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t trash out a hotel room, when I’m called to duty.  I’m glad to DYI all the way, but when the organization is paying almost $100 a night, I felt kind of ripped off.  I assumed they had been short staffed.  Stuff happens.  I walked back to the front desk so I could get a couple of coffee packets for the next morning.

When I talked to the night man, and said, “sorry, but my room didn’t get cleaned, so can I get some coffee,” he replied, yes to the coffee, but then launched into a rap where the main theme was, “didn’t you know it wouldn’t be cleaned.?  It’s only done on-demand.”  How as I supposed to know that I asked?  No one said a word when I checked in?  He claimed it was posted on the door and two other places in my room.  Really, I said?  Seems like this has less to do with the pandemic, and more to do with cutting the payroll?  Going back into the room, I could only find one notice, affixed to a mirror over the desk table.

No worries.  We overpaid, but I’ll live.  What really worries me is that this seems mainly a way to cut the payroll.  The nightman was still on duty as I left in the morning.  He tried to apologize.  I said it wasn’t necessary.  This was just company policy to cut the staff, right?  He shrugged, and said, yes.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years trying to organize hotel workers and cleaners.  The DC court of appeals recently sent an NLRB case back for rehearing when a union tried to petition for a housekeeping unit separate from food-and-beverage, exactly the case we won against the Hyatt almost forty years ago.

Once companies as big and bold as the Hilton can figure out that they can reduce the housekeeping and cleaning staff down to almost nothing and charge the same prices as always, will these pandemic pushouts ever be called back?  I wonder.  I doubt it.


Nat LaCour and Labor’s Legacy

Pearl River     In the more than forty years that I have known Nat LaCour, I had never known his full name was Nathaniel Hawthorne LaCour until I regrettably had to read his obituary when he passed away recently at 82 years of age.  I bet there was a great story behind that name for an African-American boy born in New Orleans in the 1930s on the eve of the Great Depression.  With that name, perhaps becoming a teacher was destiny of a sort, but fate and circumstance made him a labor leader and a giant in New Orleans labor history whose work also shone nationally where he retired as Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers.

The obit mentioned that part of his accomplishments in New Orleans included achieving the first collective bargaining agreement for teachers in the South.  There was no mention of the several citywide recognition strikes he led to win that first contract.  There was no mention of the fact that under his leadership, the United Teachers of New Orleans – UTNO – was the largest union in New Orleans with more than 5000 members, nor that one of the main projects in the wake of Katrina in 2005 was breaking that union so that the privatization of schools by charters could finally come into the city.  UTNO was strong enough that both the Teamsters, representing school bus drivers until Katrina, and HERE, representing cafeteria and other workers, until Katrina, were able to nudge in and thrive in the district with “me-too” contracts to gain anything that UTNO was able to muscle through the bargaining table.

Building Local 100 through the United Labor Unions and the Service Employees International Union, Nat was more than a friend.  He was a comrade and adviser.  From the beginning in 1980 forward I would drive out to New Orleans East and sit with him in his office to ask for advice, which he gave, and help, which he also gave willingly.  UTNO’s support was critical to the three terms I served as Secretary-Treasurer of the New Orleans AFL-CIO and to many of our campaigns including the living wage ballot initiative and the HOTROC campaign to organize the hospitality industry.  We were in debt to UTNO and the generosity of Nat’s leadership.  Projects and organizing drives that ACORN ran with AFT nationally benefited from Nat’s endorsement as part of their leadership team.  He vouched for us, and it mattered.

Breaking UTNO after Katrina has weakened the entire labor movement in New Orleans which until then was arguably the strongest in the South.  Although Local 100 had won representation rights and a collective bargaining agreement for city workers, breaking UTNO made it easier for the city to do the same for our sister SEIU local to whom we had transferred the contract before the storm. Shrinking the labor movement reduced labor’s voice and role in policy and politics for working people throughout the city.  Nat had been able through the strength of UTNO to gently force the smaller building and trades and other unions, whose members had largely left the city, to practice more solidarity on citywide issues for working people and the Black majority, and that voice was silenced as teachers and others had to fight for their very survival.

A measure of Nat’s stature was the fact that the auditorium of McDonough 35 near the St. Bernard housing project was opened for his funeral to allow social distancing.  There was a respectable crowd.  A photo montage that ran in the background before the service paid tribute to his work at all levels, as did memorial testimony from different current officials of the AFT.

A footnote to the weakening of the labor movement in the city over the last fifteen years was also subtly in evidence.  I sat next to a retired veteran of the postal workers.  I saw no leaders of other unions or the building trades.  The head of the central body wasn’t there.  Twenty years ago, a local labor leader would pass, and nothing was said, but everybody knew that they would see each other there.  Solidarity would be on display, respect and appreciation would be expressed, recognition shown for dues paid and still owed.  This time as I parked in the lot before the ceremony, the security guard felt obliged to ask if I was there for the funeral or some other event, because being white, I stood out. Times have changed, as unions have weakened, so have the bonds that hold workers and their unions together.

Honoring the life and legacy of Nat LaCour means rebuilding unions in New Orleans and among workers everywhere who are willing to fight as he did to build something that protected the workers he represented and the community where they lived, along with their neighbors, their work, and their unions as well.