Back to Basics

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #6 in June 2008]

What is a union and how do they differ from other forms of social justice organization?

At its most basic, a union is an organization through which workers take action and represent themselves collectively. Currently the key difference between unions is whether they see themselves as a social movement or as a social service. Unions can either promote a culture which requires a broad vision, leadership development of the rank and file, and pushing workers to take collective responsibility for their condition (both in and out of the workplace), or they can treat their members like clients to be serviced. I don’t think this debate is unique to the labor movement, however. Most social justice organizations struggle with similar questions of base-building and vision.

What is UNITE-HERE’s approach to Leadership Development?

We have a slogan: “Build Committee, Rule the City.” The committee is the collective of rank-and-file leaders responsible for organizing their workplaces. For us, the committee is not a part of the union, it is the union. We have a strong belief in the capacity of our workers to lead their own fights. A lot of times, however, people hold themselves back because of different internal barriers–many of them based in fear. A large part of leadership development is about pushing folks through these barriers.

What role has UNITE-HERE played in city-wide efforts to transform Chicago’s political structure?

Our political program in Chicago has grown out of the concrete struggles we’ve engaged in locally. Much of our local focus has been guided by the on-going strike at the Congress Hotel. In 2007, we ran a successful campaign to unseat Madeline Haithcock, the 2nd Ward Alderman who kicked the Congress strikers out of her office. In 2008, we stopped Ken Dunkin from getting the position of committeeman because he (unsuccessfully) opposed our efforts to win an extra 15 minute break for room attendants. At this stage, our local political program is more about making an example out of the politicians who attack working class people than about supporting a particular candidate. ♦

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