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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.

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"When we look back at the boycotts that have inspired me, and I am dating myself of course, but the Montgomery Bus Boycott was a powerful one. The UFW [United Farm Workers] boycotts of grapes and lettuce were others. Back at that time my family was living in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I don't think any one of us had ever seen a farmworker. I don't think any of us had seen a Latino person. But somehow we felt moved by that, and honored the boycotts and showed solidarity with those workers."

"In my community, the boycott of Coors Beer in the late 70s was very successful. That was probably the first real substantive alliance between what we now call the LGBTQ community and the labor movement. The Teamsters went to Harvey Milk in San Francisco and Morris Kite in Los Angeles for support. We got Coors Beer out of almost every gay bar in North America. That cost the company. It was powerful."

Turning back to Hyatt, I asked what lessons Jones saw emerging from the early stages of the campaign.

"In the labor movement, there is a tendency to use a vocabulary and a language that is not accessible to most people," he said. "I am always paying attention to that. When I first started working with the union, I sort of teased them a bit and said, 'You know, it's too bad you labor people can't speak plain English or Spanish or Mandarin or any other useful language, because nobody knows what the hell you're talking about.' I think progressives in general can learn from watching the words they use and coming up with a language that is understandable."

"Something that has always been very much part of our union, and a part of many other organizations' efforts, is storytelling. It's getting right down to what our lives are about. Who is this woman who is cleaning your room? Where did she come from? Why did she leave her home country? What happened? Does she have children? Does she have elderly parents at home? What is her life story? These stories I find so compelling, not only to demonstrate the justice of our cause, but also to find that common ground."

"Now, I don't know you, but I suspect you weren't born into great wealth. So I suspect you know what it's like to get down on your hands and knees and scrub your bathroom floor. I bet you have done that in your lifetime. I bet you have made beds in your lifetime. I bet you have vacuumed the floor. You know what that work is. So when we describe housekeepers in non-union Hyatt hotels being required to clean up to 30 rooms in a shift, most people can wrap their brains around what that would feel like. When we say that Hyatt led the fight in California against legislation that would have required long-handle mops, most folks get that it's degrading and physically painful to be forced to get down on your hands and knees to scrub a linoleum or tile floor."

"So, we are doing our best to avoid rhetoric for rhetoric's sake and to really give people a glimpse into the lives of the workers who represent the new economy. These are the jobs that can't be outsourced. You are not going to be able to make a hotel room bed from a sweatshop in Pakistan or a call center in Mumbai." Since these jobs are staying, Jones argued, "let's value them, and value those workers, and treat them with respect, and pay them sufficiently, and make sure they get health care."

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