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Union employees showed CPAC a good time — and their union pride

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This weekend, as tuxedoed waitstaff quietly served drinks and dinner to paying CPAC attendees interested in the bon mots of union-busting Wisconsin governor Scott Walker (R), few of the guests likely took the time to peer at their servers’ chests. If they had, the CPACers might have noticed something ironic: even as Walker was lauding the optimism of Wisconsin’s business community in the wake of his union-busting, union employees were placing and removing their dinner plates (which were assembled by union employees in the kitchens and washed by union employees after).

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Though some of the contract employees brought in to serve CPAC’s needs were not unionized, the Marriott Wardman Park (like CPAC’s original home, the Omni Shoreham) is a union hotel — which means its employees are organized under the banner of UNITE HERE’s Local 25. And, as part of their contract, every employee is allowed to wear their union button under their Marriott nametag. The buttons ranged from the above subtle button to one displaying a white, cougar-like paw print on a black background to more simple text buttons. But for each, the message was clear to those who noticed: we’re union employees, and we’re not going to hide it, even at CPAC.

And while some CPAC organizers privately complained that unionization at hotels runs up the costs of holding the conference there, few CPAC attendees seemingly noticed the presence of union members — often derided by conservatives as “thugs” — and one even denied they were there at all.

Though some employees, like Patchimanon, didn’t realize that the CPAC conference skewed anti-union, others like Anthony said, “Every year they come here, they’re nice, we’re happy to have them.” But others, like Mahbubul Murshed, had problems with the anti-union and anti-immigrant positions espoused by some at CPAC. “They have the right to what they say,” he said, but noted that “unions are getting stronger day by day.”

Having previously worked at a non-union hotel, Murshed noted the differences that unionization brings to employees on the ground: if he’s hired as a banquet employee, he can’t be sent to another area of the hotel, like housekeeping, to do work for which he is ill-prepared, untrained or physically incapable, as he was in his previous job. He has a way to complain about abuse on the job that doesn’t require going through the person creating the abusive conditions. And if he’s called in to work on a certain shift, he can’t simply be sent home at management’s discretion without pay — an important provision for a man with two daughters at home. Best of all, the contract the union has with the hotel means his employer pays 100 percent of his health insurance premiums: non-union employees at the hotel have to pay half of the cost of their premiums and, according to Murshed, employees at non-union hotels pay 70 percent, when they get health benefits at all. “Every contract, management asks the unions to let the employees pay part of it,” Murshed said, “but then the unions ask for higher wages to cover the difference and the hotel doesn’t agree so it stays this way.”

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As is often the case with low-skill service jobs in large American cities, many of the workers at the Marriott Wardman Park are recent immigrants — including Murshed, who legally immigrated from Bangladesh. He took issue with some of the anti-immigration sentiment on display at the conference. “All the white folks in the United States, what was their route?” he asked, noting that the earliest settlers of the continent hadn’t asked the indigenous people for their permission to immigrate. “My kids were born here, but they are called ‘Indian’ instead of ‘American’ because they are not white,” he said, “But no one ever calls this guy ‘Italian’ or that guy ‘Spanish’ instead of ‘American.'” He added, “Because of our color, our appearance, our face, we are not treated as Americans.”

But, he said, “we love the union,” because “it’s our safeguard… it protects our rights” regardless of from where he or his colleagues came, or who belives they are less than fully American.

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