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The Interview: Roxie Herbekian of Unite Here

Getting fired propelled Roxie Herbekian into three decades of work as a labor organizer.

The president of Local 7 of Unite Here, an international union that represents workers in the hospitality industry, was working as a non-union waitress and room service phone operator at the Watergate complex in Washington in 1981 when she joined a Unite Here effort to represent workers.

"I got fired for organizing," Herbekian said.

She began working for the union, organizing campaigns in Washington, Northern Virginia and Baltimore.

For the past year, Unite Here has focused on improving the working conditions of hotel employees in Baltimore. Herbekian, who had been an organizing director for the group, was elected president of the local in March.

The local represents 2,600 employees at hotels, restaurants, food-service companies and casinos, as well as at universities, Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

One of the union's bigger campaigns has targeted unionized and non-unionized Hyatt Regency hotels around the country, including the non-unionized Hyatt Regency Baltimore. The union is fighting what it sees as a trend toward reducing permanent staff and hiring temporary workers instead. The temps may work for the hotel for years but get no benefits, Herbekian said.

In May, an organizing committee of Local 7 launched a campaign to unionize the Baltimore hotel. The union is seeking what Herbekian called "a neutral process" through which workers would be able to decide on union representation. Herbekian said the local plans more protests at the hotel next month.

Last week, Herbekian sat down with The Baltimore Sun to talk about the goals of the labor movement in Baltimore and elsewhere.

What do workers think of campaigns to unionize their workplaces?

We definitely find a variety of experiences, people who have been in unions or not been in unions. But now the environment universally guarantees that people are scared. We hear a lot of issues of how health insurance is not affordable, of low wages and no full-time hours. We hear issues people want addressed, but we [also] hear, "Gee, they're going to fire me if I'm involved in a union." With the [Baltimore] Hyatt, workers are standing up to the company under great pressure.

Which industries continue to have the worst track records in treatment of workers?

I don't know if there's one I could single out. It tends to be more regional than a particular company or industry. Where there is a greater density of unions, the standards are better. In Baltimore at the Hyatt, workers are making three-fifths of what those workers make in Oakland, [Calif.], Seattle and Los Angeles, where room rates are comparable. Room rates in Baltimore are substantial, but we have not seen wages keep pace.

What has changed in your work since you started as an organizer?

In Baltimore … what's happened is the highly unionized industries have left the country, and now we have a rising service sector. Years ago, you graduated high school and got a job at Bethlehem Steel; now you graduate high school and get a job with a hotel. We have a rising industry in the hospitality industry and need to hold companies accountable for creating good jobs. The industry is lagging behind.

What are some of the biggest achievements of Unite Here around the country over the past few years?

We represent probably 60 percent of the workers in the gaming industry as it has grown. Locals in Las Vegas and in Atlantic City have made sure gaming workers are compensated and have decent standards. In Mississippi, one of the worst anti-union states, we have been active in the immigrant workers' rights arena. We were active in getting President Obama elected in Virginia and Nevada. Other big victories have been organizing thousands of workers in food services and hotels through our campaigns.

What has been the biggest impact of the labor movement in general over the years?

The fight-back on programs to destroy Social Security and to downgrade protection of workers on the job. The labor movement has been important in terms of local momentum-building, working with Casa de Maryland and working around the country with the Occupy movement. The labor movement at this point is aware we've got to be a part of building a bigger movement in the country. There are diminished protections for immigrants because the pendulum has swung to the right.

What are some of the biggest challenges faced by workers today?

Our biggest challenge is, even in the recession, these hotel companies and these large food companies are doing fine, yet we see the jobs not being fine. [In Baltimore] there used to be great union jobs, in steel, in manufacturing. Now the hospitality industry is on the rise. These need to be great jobs if residents of this city want to be able to sustain themselves.

We at Local 7 think our challenge — and opportunity — to improve the city is: Can we make hospitality industry jobs good, family-sustaining jobs?

Do you expect the trend of declining union membership to continue or will it level off?

I don't think [declining membership] is a given. It's a matter of how much fight-back there is. We have a lot of organizations interested in good jobs and we have grown, and will continue to grow, from 1,800 members in 2000 to 2,600 members.

We're under no illusions it's an easy thing. A lot of companies feel entitled to pay low wages, and it's something we have to push back against.

What is your response to criticisms that union leadership or members are to blame for economic troubles and the demise of some businesses?

Honestly, it's a lot of hyperbole. It's like trying to blame workers for companies closing up and leaving. There are plenty of examples of workers agreeing to concessions. It makes me angry, trying to blame workers who aren't in control of their employer or trade policies. In all my years of bargaining, I've found people are reasonable and often on the same side. Everyone understands that a benefit to the industry is a benefit to employees. The question is are we being taken advantage of or [are we] smart to take concessions? People do not like being taken advantage of.


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