Ordinary working people, especially the young and people of color, have been so much and for so long exploited in Arizona that, for many, labor and political activism have become lifelong governing passions, not just a matter of phone-banking on a weekend or two in an election season. Their long misfortunes have galvanized labor into becoming a voter-registration powerhouse and a formidable organizer in the fielding, grooming, and election of candidates. In this way, union activists are achieving tangible results that are improving the lives of all Arizona citizens.
Latinos comprise a 31 percent—and growing—share of the state’s population; it’s long been remarked that the demographics make electoral change here inevitable. But the speed of Arizona’s apparent political shift is owing in no small part to the hard work of a committed labor movement.
Maria Madrid, who works as a maid at the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel, symbolizes the impact of that movement in the Grand Canyon State. The 56-year-old Mexican native describes the new union contract she helped fight for in terms of bloodied knees. Madrid went to lunch one day and discovered that the surgical incisions from her recent knee replacement surgery had burst, and blood was sticking her trousers to her skin. Madrid’s supervisor made light of her injuries. Being provided by management with long-handled scrub brushes for cleaning floors may not sound like such a big deal—until your knees are shot from years of scrubbing tile floors by hand.
“They used never to give us a raise of more than 15 or 20 cents, but now we see the difference in our checks, too,” Madrid told me during a visit to UNITE HERE Local 631 in Phoenix; the hospitality union helped organize the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel last year, staging a two-day vigil and fast in 115-degree heat. Maids at the hotel used to be required to clean as many as 17 check-outs in one day; today the maximum number is 12, Madrid said. “Our insurance rates will be lowered in November. The gains are huge.” Madrid, a grandmother, is studying now to become an American citizen. She is eager to continue to work to bring others into the union, and to persuade more Arizonans to vote.
As Rachel Sulkes, an organizer at the labor-affiliated Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) and UNITE HERE explained: “While people don’t always understand unions, they do understand organizations that take on bullies in the community, and issues that they’re very passionate about.”
Arizona currently ranks dead last in the nation, by some measures, for state spending on higher education; appropriations have been cut 27 percent from 2011 levels. In Maricopa County, which is home to Phoenix and to Arizona State University, Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been accused of engaging in inmate abuse, deportations, and racial profiling, leading to the recently announced federal prosecution for contempt of court relating to the racial profiling of Latinos.