At a Thursday rally that was part of nationwide demonstrations held by the UNITE HERE hospitality workers union, New Orleans and Biloxi hotel, convention center and casino employees called for local service industry workers to organize and spoke out in praise of the union.

About 75 people, a few still in chef coats and pants, gathered Oct. 19 at the corner of Convention Center Boulevard and Canal Street to chant and hear speakers who are members of Local 2262, UNITE HERE's area chapter. The speakers' overpowering message: organizing has raised their wages, given them access to affordable health insurance and more in an industry that's sometimes known for offering meager benefits and poor financial security.

"When hospitality jobs are unionized, they become middle-class jobs," Marlene Patrick-Cooper, UNITE HERE organizing director, said. "It's the best answer for fighting poverty in the United States."

[jump] The rally was just one of a series of recent events which indicate new momentum in efforts to organize the city's hospitality industry, which employs more than 80,000 people. Last month, the newly formed New Orleans Hospitality Workers Committee marched through the French Quarter to call for more equitable treatment. Earlier this year, 500 workers at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside hotel voted to unionize with UNITE HERE, joining workers at the Loews New Orleans Hotel, Harrah's New Orleans Hotel and Casino and some departments at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

In advance interviews, UNITE HERE members from New Orleans said the union has helped them by "going to bat" for employees who felt they were being mistreated and by negotiating better wages. The members envisioned citywide organizing efforts by workers who are essential to functioning of the $7.4 billion New Orleans tourism industry.

Thanh Dao, who has worked as a cocktail server at the Harrah's casino for 18 years, said the union helped her coworkers secure better benefits and more stable hours (e.g. consistent full-time hours, rather than dropping from full- to part-time) and adjudicated disputes between management and employees. As one example, when a manager was bullying an employee and making inappropriate comments about her attire, the union stepped in, Dao said. She's also gotten a raise.

"If I told you how much I was making before the union came in, you'd be like 'After 16 years? That's it?' I was making $5, $6 [an hour]," she says. "Ever since the union got involved, [the company] started to respect us as workers."

Thomas Brown, a banquets department worker at Harrah's and 30-year veteran of New Orleans hotels, said having a union contract has helped protect employees in his department from changes in event pay structure which might have resulted in cuts to server income. He's optimistic about the potential for unions to change the quality of life for local industry workers.

"This is something that we want to do citywide. ... A lot of the hospitality workers are not getting their fair share," he said. "We want the main companies to own up to what the city of New Orleans hospitality workers need."

At Thursday's rally, the sun dipped behind the nearby casino as union members and shop stewards shared their thoughts on what organizing has meant to them - and where they might go from here.

Lila Zucker, a bartender at Loews New Orleans Hotel, said her chronic health issues would prevent her from working without the $10 a month health insurance she's able to purchase through the hotel's union contract. Odell Brown, who works as a banquet steward at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, called for workers to receive a larger piece of the company's more than $10 billion in annual revenue. Gabby Bolden, a banquet server at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, mentioned rumors of a vast new hotel in development nearby.

"It is our business to make sure that [any new hotel] jobs are union jobs with decent wages and benefits," she said. "We all deserve a fair wage."

Bolden also urged elected officials to support local organizing efforts, but two City Council candidates who attended the rally already had pledged their support. James Gray, the incumbent District E councilman currently in a  Nov. 18 runoff election against opponent Cyndi Nguyen, donned a red UNITE HERE shirt and vowed to assist to the union in contract negotiations if he is re-elected.

Jay Banks, who faces Seth Bloom in a runoff for the District B City Council seat, also spoke, saying he would be "a friend" to unions if elected. "Making sure that families can work and afford to live is crucial to the survival of this city," he said.

Though the rally was brief, the lively crowd and enthusiastic testimonies suggested a promising future for the labor movement in New Orleans. And as the employees that support the city's preeminent industry, hotel, restaurant and other hospitality employees could be uniquely well-placed to advocate for workers' rights.

"The hospitality industry is the backbone of New Orleans," Willie Woods, a Hilton New Orleans Riverside banquet server, said. "The city will not move without us."