Think booking a hotel room during summer is tough? It might get tougher if the UNITE-HERE labor union keeps up pressure on several major hotel chains this summer to gain new members.
It is using a tried-and-true tactic: a corporate campaign. Corporate campaigns are elaborate political and public relations campaigns that labor unions use to target a specific employer or group of employers. Tactics include feeding allegations of company wrongdoing to the news media, filing complaints with regulatory agencies, contacting shareholders to challenge management’s competence and question the company’s financial health, leveraging the union’s investment power by introducing shareholder resolutions that advance union goals — and, of course, picketing.
Corporate campaigns were pioneered by one of UNITE-HERE’s predecessor unions, and they continue to be an important strategy for UNITE-HERE and other unions. This year UNITE-HERE is launching a nationwide campaign against several major hotel chains — including Hilton, Hyatt, and Holiday Inn — and the union is thinking big.
With contracts expiring this year at hotels in Boston, Chicago, Honolulu, Los Angeles, and New York — and hotel workers in San Francisco working without a contract since 2004 — UNITE-HERE’s “Hotel Workers Rising” campaign seeks to take advantage of this timing by threatening a walkout by 60,000 workers at 400 hotels. The campaign has enlisted former North Carolina Senator and 2004 Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards and actor and far-left activist Danny Glover as spokesmen.
For private sector unions, survival depends on increasing membership, and to that end, UNITE-HERE and other aggressive unions left the AFL-CIO a year ago to form a new labor federation, the Change to Win Coalition. UNITE-HERE’s Change to Win confederates — especially the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — are also enthusiastic about corporate campaigns. While it is unlikely to rejuvenate the labor movement in the way that its supporters wish, the corporate campaigns of UNITE-HERE and Change to Win can still inflict heavy damage on employers and the economy.
The Change to Win unions claim that the AFL-CIO, under the direction of John Sweeney, has squandered organizing opportunities to engage in electoral political activity, nearly all on behalf of Democratic candidates. But the split seems to be more the result of frustration with Sweeney’s inability to follow through on his pledge to coordinate successful corporate campaigns. In his 1995 inaugural address, Sweeney proclaimed, “We will use old-fashioned mass demonstrations, as well as sophisticated corporate campaigns, to make worker rights the civil rights issue of the 1990s.”
UNITE-HERE KNOWS ABOUT successful corporate campaigns; one of its predecessor unions helped pioneer the tactic. This union was formed in July 2004 with the merger of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE) and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE). It boasts 450,000 active members and 400,000 retirees. UNITE is itself the product of a 1995 merger between the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU).
ACTWU’s four-year campaign against textile giant J.P. Stevens, which ended in 1980 with the unionization of 4,000 Stevens employees, is considered a watershed in corporate campaign history. This campaign’s strategy was laid out by Ray Rogers, then an ACTWU staffer, who in 1981 founded Corporate Campaign, Inc., a strategy consulting firm for unions and leftist activist groups. Rogers’s firm boasts on its website: “The Stevens Corporate Campaign exposed, attacked and broke up the network of power supporting the company and eventually forced the big money interests behind J. P. Stevens, led by Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., to give Stevens an ultimatum — settle or else.” Several mergers later, UNITE campaigns have gone on to target Disney, GAP, Guess?, K-Mart, Nike and Phillips Van Heusen, among others.
A corporate campaign’s ultimate objective is to browbeat the employer into allowing a union to organize its workers through a procedure known as “card check neutrality” — which isn’t neutral at all. Under “card-check,” which has been sanctioned by the National Labor Relations Board, an employer agrees that it will not campaign against union representation during a union organizing drive. Union communication with employees enjoys an advantage because the employer agrees to remain silent.
Moreover, “card check” circumvents a secret ballot election because it requires only that a majority of employees sign cards showing that they support union representation. Employees are often urged to sign cards publicly and in the presence of union organizers, which exposes them to high-pressure tactics that the secret ballot is intended to avoid.
Now, as a key member of the Change to Win Coalition, UNITE-HERE and its allies are pushing the envelope further. “Thinking big — big unions, big campaigns, big ideas — seems to be the hallmark of the Change to Win unions,” writes William Johnson in the Nation. Its nationwide corporate campaign against hotel chains shows UNITE-HERE’s commitment to these goals. It may be a stressful summer for travelers.
Ivan Osorio is editorial director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. This article is adapted from the study, “UNITE-HERE on the Attack: Pioneer of Corporate Campaigns Pushes Harder Than Ever,” published in the July issue of Capital Research Center‘s Labor Watch.