It had been a busy day, and Wynika White was ready to take her scheduled 15-minute break.
White, a cocktail server at Hilton New Orleans Riverside, was taken aback when her manager told her to take five minutes, instead of the usual 15 — especially since other people had taken their full breaks. The resulting conflict, in which she took her full 15 minutes and almost lost her job, was just one of the things that inspired her to join in the effort to organize the local hotel with the UNITE HERE hospitality workers' union.
"Living here in the South, people think that what [our employers] give us is what we deserve," she said. "I just got tired of seeing other people being picked on and harassed."
White told her story at a UNITE HERE breakfast at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, which is at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center through Aug. 4. At the conference, local and national organizers from unions and labor groups including American Federation of Teachers, Teamsters, Writers' Guild of America East and Fight for $15 have been making the case for a revitalized labor movement in the U.S.
As many panelists at the conference acknowleged Thursday, it's a tough time for labor in America. Although a majority of Americans have a positive view of labor unions, just 6.4-6.5 percent of private-sector workers belonged to a union in 2017, according to left-leaning think tank Economic Policy Institute (EPI). Recent court decisions and legislation, including the recent Janus vs. AFSCME Supreme Court decision and the rise of right-to-work laws, have undercut unions' membership and cash reserves.
Additionally, rising economic insecurity in much of the country during and immediately following the Great Recession may have made workers less willing to risk their jobs via organizing and coordinated labor actions, such as strikes.
But panelists at labor-focused talks, who included professional organizers, a West Virginia teacher who recently went on strike, a labor journalist, a cannabis-industry driver and Teamsters member and others, said there are ways for organized labor to regain its footing among American workers. The techniques they described bore an odd resemblance to the strategy one might hear at any business gathering about the changing marketplace. Like many companies, labor groups are using new technology, a focus on certain demographics, emerging industries and the current political environment to become powerful 21st-century organizations.
As panelists described it, the demographic gap is a major challenge they'll face going forward. While union membership is on the rise among young people, an overall fall-off in unions' prominence and membership means many people in their thirties and younger have little to no experience with organized labor.
"You just have to be more strategic about how to talk about what the labor movement is ... [and] how to tell the story of unions and workers," Emmelle Israel, an AFL-CIO field communications coordinator, said. She pointed out that the language around unions — jargon like "shop steward" or "ULP" (an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board) can be off-putting or intimidating.
Israel encouraged labor groups to make pathways for young members to hold positions of power, such as the AFL-CIO's 2013 creation of a young worker advisory council, and exhorted organizers not to discount the experiences of younger workers, who "can be 26, 27 years old and have 10 years of labor experience," she said. Other panelists said the political engagement of young people around issues such as immigrant rights and affordable housing is a way for labor to make inroads, by allying with community groups working on those issues and showing their interrelatedness with labor.
What often accompanies discussions of attracting millennials and young people is a conversation about technology, and the same was true for panelists and organizers at this year's Netroots Nation conference. Panelists said the modern labor movement is moving beyond door-knocking and face-to-face conversations to expand its reach and mobilize its members quickly. At one table at the UNITE HERE breakfast, two women talked about their product Hustle, an app- or web-based messaging service that helps organizers communicate with prospective members and has ancillary benefits such as helping plan canvassing routes.
Jocelyn Sherman, digital director for United Farm Workers, said the group has received a lot of recognition for the day-in-the-life-style videos its workers are making and sharing on social media, which can be hashtagged and tied to campaigns. She also encouraged the use of text messaging as "a subtle way of organizing, that makes it hard for companies to target strong supporters."
The old labor techniques, panelists reminded participants, still can have power. Much of what was said at Thursday's labor panels portrayed time-honored practices in service of new industries and movements. At one panel sponsored by Teamsters, panelists discussed organizing in the cannabis industry, where workers have pushed back against the libertarian ethos espoused by industry bigwigs.
That organizing has turned out to have benefits for workers in that industry. At one talk, a driver and union member working in the cannabis industry described his arrest by local police who didn't have a complete understanding of the ins and outs of legalization. While he sat in jail, a Teamsters lawyer got in touch with the sheriff, coordinating his release and helping make sure he wouldn't face legal consequences.
"As a guy who's never been arrested, who doesn't have a record, all I'm thinking about is 'How is this going to affect my future?'" the driver, Richard Rodriguez, said. "All I need to do is make one phone call and I can get the proper answer."
And one well-attended panel called "What's a Strike and How Can I Help?" talked about the modern resurgence of the old-school strike. As panelist and labor journalist Sarah Jaffe noted, strike frequency plummeted in the U.S. following President Ronald Reagan's firing of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers in 1981.
But with a rash of teacher strikes in the U.S., the taxi drivers' strike following President Donald Trump's ban on immigrants from majority-Muslim countries, walkouts at fast food restaurants orchestrated by Fight for $15 and a recent transnational strike by Amazon workers, there are signs that the technique is regaining prominence, especially if — as New York Communities for Change Director Jonathan Westin said — labor activists can get buy-in to strikes from community members and allies.
"It's just the slog of getting people on your side. ... Ordering pizzas [for strikers] is great, but putting yourself out there on the picket line is even better," he said.
It remains to be seen how some of these tactics will play out in New Orleans, where a growing labor movement has been particularly visible in the city's powerful hospitality industry. At the breakfast, New Orleans UNITE HERE members talked about how organizing has changed the tenor of their workplace, correcting pay inequities and making sure everyone who works at local unionized properties (which also include the Loews New Orleans Hotel, the convention center, and Harrah's New Orleans Hotel and Casino) can make a living.
Hilton New Orleans Riverside workers recently finished bargaining their first contract, but those at the conference told a group their work is nowhere close to being finished.
"I got in this fight to change the city of New Orleans," Willie Woods, a UNITE HERE member who works in banquets at Hilton New Orleans Riverside, said. "We plan on changing this whole city, one hotel at a time."