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‘Fighting for survival’: Inside the union where coronavirus put 98% of members out of work

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Last June, D. Taylor, the president of the union Unite Here, stood before a throng of hotel, casino and food service workers. They’d packed into a giant ballroom at the MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas to hear their leader celebrate the accomplishments of one of the few success stories in private-sector union organizing.

To thunderous applause, Taylor ticked off the victories. The union, he said, was pulling thousands of members and their families into better existences, winning contracts with generous health care plans and pensions and safer, fairer working conditions. And it was gaining power, he said, helping labor-friendly Democrats win key races in Nevada and Arizona, with ambitious plans for 2020, including voter drives in Florida and Arizona.

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Taylor urged members to seize the moment. “We are in a moment of time where we have an opportunity to organize on scale we have never seen in our lifetime,” he said, exhorting leaders to sign on 100,000 new members over the next five years. “This moment will not last, by the way; it will not wait on us.”

The warning was prophetic. Today, Unite Here is being pounded. Many unions will suffer during the coronavirus crisis, but the situation facing Unite Here is particularly acute. Nearly all of its members are in industries — not just hotels and casinos, but also providing food services for universities, airlines, airports and sports stadiums — that have been ravaged by the pandemic. Two months ago, Taylor could boast that the organization had never seen better days. Today, a staggering 98% of Unite Here’s 307,000 members are out of work, he said.

“Right now, we’re fighting for our survival,” Taylor said in an interview with ProPublica. “We’re crushed in every city and every sector of our industry. There is nobody that has escaped the effects of COVID-19.”

The crisis poses a sweeping financial challenge to Unite Here and its local affiliates, which derive most of their revenue from member dues. In 2019, the central administration of the union, known as the international, took in $65 million from the monthly per-member dues it collects from local affiliates. With nearly all members unemployed, that flow is quickly drying up. The local affiliates, which maintain their own budgets but rely on the same stream of dues, are also suffering.

The international, which ended 2019 with $56 million in cash and nearly $80 million in investments, according to Unite Here’s public filings, has a good rainy fund. But it needs to quickly cut expenses and shore up struggling affiliates, which tend to have smaller financial cushions and whose members urgently need the union’s help.

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The belt-tightening will be painful. Already the union is asking its employees to raise their hands for early retirement packages. “We’re fairly confident we will have mandatory layoffs,” Taylor said. “We don’t want to do that.” Staff members are taking pay cuts — 20% for Taylor and the union’s No. 2 official — according to people familiar with the matter. Other staff members were asked to take 5% or 10% cuts.

Some locals have already begun layoffs, cutting as much of half of their paid staff, the union confirmed. At the international, Taylor has been calling vendors, including lawyers and political consultants, telling them they will be furloughed or their fees significantly reduced. “We are going to continue to look at every single penny because we have to,” he said.

As the crisis erupted in early March and air travel and hotel occupancy plummeted, the union had to scramble. The international assembled a crisis response committee of leaders from locals around the country. The group set up a new system using mass text messaging to communicate with members who were being laid off in droves. Unite Here lobbyists pushed for worker protections in the federal bailout, the union said, and helped ensure that airline catering workers were included in the rescue. They are still trying to get the government to protect unemployed workers’ health care.

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Unite Here staff is running phone banks and helping members fill out unemployment forms, apply for food stamps and find emergency housing. In Las Vegas, the local said it has fed 6,000 workers via drive-through and home delivery of meals.

Taylor said a lot of the larger affiliates still have adequate strike funds and reserves. “They will have to make all kinds of tough choices too,” he said, “but their survivability is more likely regardless.” But smaller and medium-sized locals are less well funded, Taylor said, and need immediate help.

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To keep its local affiliates afloat, the International is sending $50 million from its strike and investment funds to hard-hit locals. “We’re a fighting union,” Taylor said, “and so obviously you have got to have money to fight.”

Unite Here has been one of the few bright spots in recent decades in an otherwise bleak landscape for private-sector organized labor, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. (Unite Here traces its history back to 1891, when it was founded as the Hotel Employee and Restaurant Employees union.)

Unite Here is strategic about which industries it targets, whom it recruits and how it wages campaigns, Bronfenbrenner said. Its research teams study the corporate structures of targets, she said, using orchestrated campaigns to disrupt the companies’ relationships with “suppliers, customers, regulators and every aspect of their business.” The idea, she said, is to make it easier for the company to accept the union than to fight it.

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Bronfenbrenner said Unite Here members are overwhelmingly women and people of color, including many recent immigrants from Latin America. (The union confirms it has a high percentage of minority and female members.)

Unlike manufacturing, most service jobs in the hospitality industry can’t be sent overseas. Until the COVID-19 crisis, the hospitality and leisure industries were booming.

Unite Here is one of the country’s more aggressive unions, according to labor experts. In addition to embracing strikes, it has also been a force politically, with a formidable get-out-the-vote operation. The union’s Las Vegas affiliate, Culinary Workers Union Local 226 is the largest of its locals, with around 60,000 members. In 2018, along with reinforcements from the International and other locals, its members knocked on over 370,000 doors in Las Vegas and Reno. The union was credited with helping increase voter turnout, resulting in a new Democratic senator (who defeated a Republican incumbent) and governor.

A similar effort was underway for the 2020 election with a focus on two swing states: Arizona and Florida. In-person canvassing efforts have been paused.

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Unite Here has assured workers, including those who’ve been laid off, that it will continue to advocate for them. Many Unite Here members were covered by generous health insurance plans negotiated with employers, and in Nevada, those workers will be able to keep their health insurance for up to six months. The local is negotiating with employers to try to ensure that workers are paid through the entire period a given business is closed, according to Bethany Khan, a spokeswoman for the Las Vegas local. For example, on April 1, after negotiations with Unite Here, Wynn Resorts announced that it would extend pay and benefits for full-time, part-time and hourly workers through May 15.

In Boston and Rhode Island, where Unite Here’s Local 26 represents 12,000 workers in the hotel, food and gaming industries, 90% of the businesses where the union represents workers have closed. The few hotels that are open are operating with 5% or less of their staff, said Carlos Aramayo, Local 26’s new president. “It’s very bare bones.”

Harvard University and Tufts University have agreed to pay wages and benefits through the end of the spring semester, Aramayo said. MIT went further, agreeing to pay wages — including elevated “hazard pay” for the few workers still on the job — and benefits for subcontractors through the same period.

“Some companies are doing the right things,” Taylor said. “Others are not.” He pointed to the hotel industry as an example of the latter category. For instance, the union noted, tens of thousands of Marriott executives and staff have been furloughed and Unite Here staffers say the company must do more, including protecting workers’ health insurance through the crisis. “Marriott has not stepped up,” Aramayo said, asserting that the company’s position has been that it will not compensate furloughed employees or contribute to their benefit funds. “It’s a real shame to see a company that has been so successful and that has all these resources not be willing to do right by its employees.”

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A spokeswoman denied that Marriott has resisted the union’s pleas to address health insurance. “The company has been engaged in effects bargaining with Mr. Aramayo and numerous other national and local Unite Here leaders for several weeks, concerning the impact of Covid-19 on our associates, including continuing health insurance coverage,” the spokeswoman said. “We will continue to do so.”

Taylor, who started in the union nearly four decades ago as a casino organizer in Reno, said the crisis would change the union, but he predicted the union would emerge stronger and more resilient as workers experience the difference between having union protections and not having them. “We will be raring to go.”

Doris Burke contributed reporting.

Do you have information about unions and labor are being affected by the economic effects of the Coronavirus? Email [email protected]. Here’s how to send tips and documents to ProPublica securely.

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