On a Saturday in June, workers, organizers and allies of UNITE HERE Local 217’s downtown Providence hotels marched in solidarity with gay rights activists in the Rhode Island Pride Parade. Rainbow confetti carpeted the streets. Lady Gaga blasted from every float. Though I played high school soccer, I’ve never seen so much (or so little) underwear on a single occasion. Even for my college eyes, this was a lot of skin. When they said Big Labor, they meant it.
This was Providence, a place where sexuality and solidarity are less bad romance than mutual labor of love. That night, I witnessed a union between unionism and sexuality-based identity politics, the old left and the very new left. It was a heady mixture of social movements that, even in the liberal academy, you’re led to associate with the supposedly burned out student radicalism of the ’60s. At Yale, the social left conspires with the economic center. As alum and National Review writer Matthew Shaffer puts it, “A member of the Party of the Left is now more likely to work for a hedge fund than a labor union after graduation.” I wish it weren’t true, but it is.
It doesn’t have to be. As I’ve learned from the social movement unionism of UNITE HERE, a new generation of worldly social liberals is ripe to be organized under the union banner. UNITE HERE disproves the standard assumptions about how to spend your energy if you’re the sort of student who’s into “doing good” or “solving problems.” In the process it shows that the labor movement is, or can be, far from the stodgy, middle-class-white-male, bloated bureaucracy that many otherwise reasonable Democrats make it out to be.
UNITE HERE is at the forefront of labor “organizing” in its strictest sense. Organizers are tasked not with cutting deals with employers but with building strong committees of workers who then, themselves, take on the task of organizing other workers. As some recent high-profile certification votes convincingly show, workers prefer this model to the more top-down approach of the formerly Andy Stern–led Service Employees International Union, whose concession bargaining and shop-floor unionization raids unfortunately but understandably put a bureaucratic Big Labor face on labor.
It’s the sort of organizing that would attract Carmen Castillo, a member of the Local 217 committee whose struggle is simple: “I want to be a professional, to make a good job and make good money” and, every year, take a “vacation home” to the Dominican Republic. For Carmen, economic self-determination is both the point and the process toward organizing success. This active personal stake is the grassroot of broader social movement spirit. Picketers and paraders are, first of all, participants.
Call it democratic, progressive, American, “socialist,” whatever. What’s at stake is not an ideology, but life itself. Shouting “Show me what democracy looks like!” alongside a hundred others, as professors from the New York Times–funded “American Democracy Project” conference crossed a picket line to enter a militantly anti-union hotel, is the closest I’ve come to a singular political imperative.