In Connecticut Hotels and Cafeterias, Recruiting a Rank-and-File Army of Organizers
How much stronger would our unions be if they didn’t rely so heavily on staffers with little or no experience in their industries? What if more organizing was done by the members themselves?
“A lot of people feel that the union is just money coming out of their check,” said Doretta Bowman, a food service worker at a high school in New Haven. “I don’t feel that way. The union is me and my co-workers that I work with every day. We are going to fix problems as they arise.”
That’s because her union is using its new leave-of-absence (LOA) program to put more power in the hands of members. Bowman is one of nine rank and filers so far who have taken leave from their jobs to work as full-time organizers.
UNITE HERE Local 217 represents 3,000 workers in food service and hotels across Connecticut. It has won contract language that allows not only officers and stewards, but any member, to take leave at the union’s request without losing seniority.
Workers who’ve been through it say the program has transformed them. They return to work with more skills, expertise, and ongoing organizing responsibilities.
“Rather than only having a handful of staff people dealing with 40-odd shops, we have a base of organizers that we are building from the ground up,” said program alum Stephan Alderman, a University of Hartford cafeteria chef.
The program is helping change the culture of the union—ensuring that its goals and strategies are not determined solely by staff.
SHARING THE LOAD
Over the past few years, Local 217 has cut its permanent staff from seven down to four.
“It sends the wrong message if all workers ever see are non-rank-and-file organizers doing organizing,” said Andrew Tillett-Saks, the union’s organizing director.
A year ago members voted 4 to 1 to increase their own dues to finance the leave program. The new funds plus the reduction in permanent staff allowed the local to create three slots for members to cycle onto staff for stints of three to six months.
The resource shift made sense to Diana St. Mark, a food service worker on leave from the University of Hartford. “We are not going to completely replace our organizers, but we are making our union stronger by getting more leaders involved,” she said.
Each LOA organizer takes responsibility for a “turf” of workers. These may be existing union members, where the task is internal organizing, or workers seeking to join the union, new organizing.
Either way, there’s a method to learn. Each rank-and-file organizer sits down with a staff mentor once a week to talk through obstacles and develop skills, sometimes roleplaying one-on-one conversations or mapping a workplace.
“I go to some of their meetings with them and they go to some of my meetings with me, so we can also model the skill and give feedback,” said Sarah Cox, a staff organizer who works with three LOAs. Parts of monthly staff meetings are dedicated to group trainings.
One benefit of the program is that it gives members the chance to form connections between worksites. For instance, St. Mark was assigned to help cafeteria workers get ready for contract negotiations.
“I didn’t know any of the workers in these places,” she said. “I didn’t even know they existed, so I really had no idea how big our union was—but I went to work building committees in those workplaces.”
Whether the turf is internal or new organizing, a key focus in every worksite is to recruit leaders to an organizing committee that’s responsible for actions.
The organizer helps the committee address workplace problems with action. Often that means organizing a march on the boss. When workers go as a group to confront a manager about something, they get a taste of the power they have when they act together. Mangement gets a taste of it, too.
“In one cafeteria I organized, the manager used to be up front with his computer, watching employees, making them nervous,” said St. Mark. “After the employees started organizing delegations and confronting him, he got scared. Now he stays in the office and is too afraid to be out among the workers.”
To get workers comfortable with confrontation, LOA organizers start small and build. A new committee in a university cafeteria began by joining a mild statewide activity: members got their co-workers to sign a petition pledging to support the master contract campaign.
Next, the committee mobilized workers to present the petition to their manager in an impromptu meeting. “The first time they were afraid,” said St. Mark. “They only had eight people agree to be a delegate to the boss.”
But the next delegation drew 14. The third time, all 20 people in the shop participated. “We saw that the work was working,” St. Mark said.
Local 217 is involved in organizing drives where a majority of workers are Creole-speaking Haitian immigrants. Thanks to the LOA program, the campaign staff includes bellman Donald Jean-Marie, who shares a common culture with the people he’s helping to organize.
“About 60 to 70 percent are Haitian, so they pulled me out because I am Haitian and speak the language,” Jean-Marie said. “When workers talk to other workers, the impact is bigger.”
The new rank-and-file organizers aren’t just foot soldiers. Part of the shift away from a staff-driven union is that members help decide strategy.
For instance, Local 217 has spent years lining up the expiration dates of contracts covering 850 cafeteria workers at seven of the nine unionized Connecticut universities. In the lead-up to negotiations, LOA organizers and workplace leaders mobilized several hundred members to a meeting to plan an escalation campaign.
The LOA organizers are also expected to participate equally in staff meetings.
The benefits are twofold. One, union strategies are enriched by the creativity and expertise that workers bring to the table. And two, people feel more ownership over plans that they’ve help to formulate.
For the permanent organizers, the challenge of this new structure is that they must be open to allowing workers to take more responsibility than before.
“The thing I preach with our organizers over and over again is, you gotta let go a little bit,” said Tillett-Saks, “because if you don’t, you can run a perfectly micromanaged meeting or campaign, but you can’t build a movement.”
Even after their leaves end, rank-and-file organizers are expected to serve in staff-like roles, attending weekly staff meetings and helping organize workplaces besides their own.
“Other campuses can call me and ask for help, because they are dealing with a grievance and don’t know what to do, and they know I have more experience,” St. Mark said.
But for her, the program’s most important result is her new skill set for nipping problems in the bud at her own workplace. Shop floor leaders like St. Mark put the boss on notice that the union doesn’t leave the building when the staff representative walks out the door.
“There is a lot I can do on my own without union staff showing up in the shop,” she said. “I feel empowered. Having someone else feel that way will grow a union that is strong.”