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Why Boycotting Hyatt Is More Than Just a Union Issue: An Interview With Activist Cleve Jones

Labor must demonstrate that the well-being of all Americans depends upon the fight for dignified working conditions, living wages and necessities like health care.

Photo Credit: Eric Wagner via Flickr


Copyright, Reprinted with permission.

If the labor movement is to have a future in the United States, it will depend on its ability to show how the issues it champions are not just the concerns of a narrow special interest group. Rather, it must demonstrate that the well-being of all Americans depends upon the fight for dignified working conditions, living wages and necessities like health care. For this reason, campaigns in which unions reach out widely to allies beyond their own membership are critical.

Recently UNITE HERE, the hotel, restaurant and casino workers union, launched a major campaign called Hyatt Hurts. The campaign is encouraging people to boycott Hyatt hotels in support of housekeepers and other workers.  As the union argues: "Hyatt has singled itself out as the worst employer in the hotel industry. Hyatt has abused its housekeepers and other hotel workers, replacing longtime employees with minimum wage temporary workers and imposing dangerous workloads on those who remain."

Recognizing that a drive against a major multinational corporation would require broad support, both domestically and internationally, the union  rallied an unusually large number of allies to aid in the campaign. Outside of other unions, the Hyatt boycott has drawn endorsements from the National Organization of Women (NOW), the Feminist Majority Foundation, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, City Life/Vida Urbana, National People's Action, the California Council of Churches, the Sierra Club and many others.

Cleve Jones, who is now on the campaign's staff, embodies the effort to create connections across boundaries. A now-legendary LGBTQ rights activist, Jones was a friend of, and collaborator with, Harvey Milk, the member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the country. (In the Hollywood version of the story, director Gus Van Sant's  Milk, Jones was played by Emile Hirsch.) Jones went on to co-found the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and to conceive of the idea for the  AIDS Memorial Quilt. In recent years, Jones has worked with UNITE HERE to build relationships between the labor movement and community allies, including the LGBTQ community.

I talked with him about how the Hyatt Hurts campaign is approaching coalition-building, and about the wider lessons that progressives can draw from the boycott effort.

To begin, I asked how UNITE HERE decided to prioritize bringing in outside allies for this drive.

"Well, that's how we win," Jones responded. "I've never been involved in a struggle that my friends and I could win on our own. We have always needed allies. It is important to always try to make those connections and connect those dots."

"Many people say to me, why are you - as a gay rights advocate or an HIV/AIDS activist - involved in this particular struggle? To me, it's a no-brainer. First of all, there are many thousands of LGBTQ people who work in hospitality industries. And Hyatt markets directly to the LGBTQ community. We know that the gay community is very important to them. The medical industry is very important to them. The Jewish community is important to them. So, we are doing outreach in all of those areas in building the coalition."

Jones went on to discuss some bigger-picture connections: "I often say, some of the most complex and difficult issues of our time seem to collide on the backs of housekeepers. First of all, it's about globalization. When I was a child, most of the hotels were owned by individual families or by small businesses with roots in their communities. Today, all of the hotels are basically owned by one of a half-dozen enormous multinational corporations. Like so many multinational corporations, they tend to act almost as sovereign entities."

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