labor 8 People Describe How Unions Changed Their Lives
As companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google fight aggressively (and insidiously) against workers’ attempts to unionize, it’s a good time to get familiar with what unions can actually do for people. Because unions can help workers win more rights, companies sometimes take months before recognizing a union (like at BuzzFeed) or concluding negotiations—a process Gimlet leadership is accused of exploiting in the months before a Spotify acquisition. Even and especially when it’s met with resistance from companies, power of organized labor can and does better conditions and protect people against workplaces that would rather exploit them.
Through unions, workers are able to fight for protections and benefits they might not otherwise have because of collective bargaining power. There are very many reasons people might want to unionize, like watching colleagues get laid off without severance, paying high premiums for health insurance, and working in unsafe conditions. Union employees negotiate contracts with their employers that can guarantee them more money, better benefits, and fairer workplaces overall.
Union contracts have become even more important during the pandemic, when hundreds of thousands of workers have been laid off or furloughed, with many left without medical insurance. People in unions have been able to negotiate for protections like back pay, health care, and sanitary guidelines that remain in place even if they are waiting for their industries to open back up, granting them security and safety during the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For a more tangible idea of how an organized workplaces changes not only people’s experiences on the job, but impacts the rest of their lives—both during this pandemic and in general—VICE spoke to eight people about what difference it made for them when they became a part of a union.
nterviews have been edited for length and clarity. Some names have been changed for privacy and safety reasons.
Maria de Jesus Valdez, housekeeper, 49, San Antonio, TX
I’ve been working in a hotel for five years. When I started, it was already a union hotel. At first, I didn't know what that meant because I had never had a union job, but my colleagues explained to me that they had organized the union with UNITE HERE Local 23 because of the injustices they faced, and that the union was about workers' rights. I decided to get involved.
During my first contract negotiation, we won a salary increase divided into three or four installments. We also won a bonus. Especially important to me is that we fought for affordable health insurance. I’m a breast cancer survivor, and the plan we won is more accessible to us. Health insurance is often very expensive, but with the plan we won I could also cover all my kids—and with dental and vision, too. The copays were affordable, like $25 or $40, so I was easily able to pay for all my prescriptions and visits with specialists.
Recently, we’ve been focused on protecting our jobs during the pandemic. In other hotels, they terminated all the workers with nothing—without retirement, without the right to return. Furloughed or laid off workers who don’t have those rehiring rights have to start over from nothing because companies may decide to hire new employees who they can pay less. With the union, we reached an agreement that we will give us the right to return to work with our seniority for 24 months. They have to call us furloughed workers back when business returns, not replace us.
The hotel has also tried to eliminate daily room cleaning, which makes cleaning very difficult, because the rooms get so dirty after days without disinfection. It also means that there are fewer jobs for all the women who work in housekeeping. As part of the agreement, we required daily room cleaning in order to keep the hotel rooms clean and safe for those still at work.
Because of the union, I can look forward to going back to a good job instead of having to start over from zero.
Priscilla Paras-Huerta, cook, 46, San Francisco, CA
I became a stay-at-home mom when my daughter was born, and when I went back to work, I knew I needed a job with health care that would really let me take care of my family. I did my research and learned that the food service jobs at San Francisco International Airport were union with UNITE HERE Local 2, so I decided to apply for a job as a cook because I wanted that protection.
I was pretty new to the union when our contract expired and was up for re-negotiation in 2016, and we went out on a two-day strike. It was my first time on a picket line—I had never even chanted before. But we were fighting for free family health care and job security, and that was really important to me. I realized that our bosses were in the restaurant and couldn’t see us protesting outside the terminal, so I called out to one of my coworkers and told her we should go leaflet in front of our restaurant. I wanted my bosses to know that we as the workers were strong, supported the strike, and were fighting for what we needed. We stood there for hours, right in front of my bosses, handing leaflets to customers and asking them not to visit the establishment. The strike gave me a voice that I didn’t know I had.
That strike helped us win free family health care. We don’t have to pay anything to cover our spouse or kids, and the copays are so low that I never need to worry about money when I go to the doctor. We also won retention rights, which protect us when our restaurants shut down or close temporarily for renovations—which happens all the time at SFO! With these retention rights, we get put on a priority list to be rehired at one of the other restaurants in the airport. My union contract gives me a sense of security that I’m always going to be able to provide for my family. Before I started as a union cook at SFO, my husband was working a job where he had to pay a big premium for health insurance, and it didn’t even cover the whole family. Nothing beats having a good job that feels really secure.
Amanda Harris, field organizer, 28, Mesquite, TX
I worked for the Texas Democratic Party when we unionized in 2020. I was elected as our union representative to speak on behalf of employees during the negotiations. Our concerns over working conditions during COVID, as well as hours and wages, were the main reasons we decided to form a union. In campaign positions, it is common to relocate for the election cycle and stay in supporter housing, which is spare space provided in the private homes of campaign supporters. Our staff was rightfully concerned about the ability to safely relocate, ensure COVID protocols in supporter housing, and develop safe methods of traditionally face-to-face campaigning. Achieving protections against relocation was a major win for our union. Ensuring our staff would remain remote and not be asked to relocate for the campaign not only protected us during the onset of the pandemic, but also provided virtual working accommodations for our staff with disabilities and revolutionized the future of staffing for Democratic campaigns in Texas.
Our union contract won us an increased hourly wage and overtime pay, as well as scheduling protections for religious holidays, paid time off, and hour caps. By making a living wage after getting a 20 percent pay increase, I was able to afford repairs to the exterior of my house, an expense I did not realize would be lifesaving during Winter Storm Uri just a few months later.
I have a genetic disorder called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and unionizing had a direct and positive impact on my health—forming a union allowed me to continue working, period. I doubt I would have been able to maintain my career in politics without the hour cap and accessibility protections we achieved in our contract. We had several staff members with disabilities who mentioned that typical campaign work is commonly not accessible. Having a union to protect us allowed us to create an inclusive environment and accessible workplace for disabled people. Disabled people’s requests for remote and virtual work are not traditionally considered reasonable accommodations under the ADA—I've personally had to leave a previous job because my employer said they could not provide remote work options in my role at that time. The pandemic has proven what many disabled people have already known: Organizations are able to meet our requests for remote work, but many employers have simply chosen not to make accommodations for far too long. Through unionizing, our staff was able to obtain accommodations beyond what the ADA guarantees.
Our contract includes specific guarantees for gender neutrality in the workplace. Sadly, gender neutrality protections, like honoring people’s pronouns and allowing employees to use the restrooms in which they are most comfortable, are not yet commonplace in labor agreements or employee handbooks. Our staff should be proud of the contract they drafted and that gender neutrality will be a part of our legacy in future labor agreements with the Texas Democratic Party. Members of our union said they felt seen at work for the first time in their careers after our staff signed a contract with gender neutrality protections. Many said they had fear at previous jobs because they wouldn't be accepted if their coworkers knew their whole identity. Our staff knew that they could be their full selves in their roles because they had a union.
By unionizing, our staff has revolutionized the future of Democratic campaigns in Texas. Traditionally, it’s common for campaign staff to move around the country for work, a trend that leaves local communities neglected in electoral organizing, meaning the campaign staff may not know the specific needs of a community they were working in. Our contract requires that our staff live within 50 miles of their work and not be relocated. Our staff was able to ensure that future campaign staff in Texas will be from Texas and working to organize their own communities!
Felix Wale*, sales associate, 31, Brooklyn, NY
In 2016, I was working at Babeland, a feminist and sex-positive sex toy store with three locations in NYC. I had been there for about a year and a half when we began organizing, and our campaign lasted nine months before another nine months of contract negotiations.
I had heard complaints from other workers a few months after I was hired at Babeland. Much of it had to do with the relationship between sex educators/sales associates (the official name of the position, abbreviated as “SE/SA”) and upper management and ownership—which is to say that there was almost no relationship at all. The last straw came after a string of firings of SE/SAs, some who had been there for years. Upper management also fired Soho's manager and assistant manager within a span of about a week and a half, seemingly without any plan to replace them. For weeks, we were working without management, meaning everyone was picking up hours beyond their stated availability and asked to do tasks that were above our pay rate. There was a strong feeling of fear and frustration in all three stores. A great majority of workers were queer and/or trans people who may have had trouble finding work outside spaces like this.
Contract negotiations dragged on for about nine months. It was almost hard to believe that we could sit across the table from the people who owned our time and were able to assertively articulate grievances that we and our fellow workers faced without fear of retaliation. Totally unreal. You can't put that feeling back in a bottle once you release it. Contract negotiations finally ended in February 2016, shortly after we announced to ownership that workers had voted to strike on Valentine's Day weekend (our busiest time).
Even before the end of contract negotiations, workers had much more power than we had before. Two workers were fired, and many of the rest of us made a coordinated effort to earn them severance. We knew that we were all living paycheck to paycheck and that being jobless would have immediate consequences on things like housing and being able to eat. We were successful! One of them was even offered their job back. That was the moment I internalized that the union is, of course, an institution, but the union is as powerful as its members. We were able to look out for each other. Other wins were a $14 starting wage (up from $12), safety trainings (being a bunch of queer/trans people in a store that centered sex and sexuality draws even more harassment than your standard retail job), a requirement that no worker would go into a disciplinary hearing alone (usually the shop steward was present and taking notes), and financially accessible health care.
Sometimes people ask if they should stop shopping at Babeland, and I always tell them no! Definitely keep shopping there—you're supporting a union business.
Samantha “Sam” Spector, food services, 40, Philadelphia, PA
Stadiums in Philly have been union with UNITE HERE Local 274 for many years, including Eagles Stadium, where I work. Every time we have to negotiate a new contract with Aramark, a food service company that has a contract with stadiums, we fight for new protections. A couple of years back, we pushed Aramark to give us language in our contract that would ensure that current workers be considered for higher-paying tipped positions, and/or shifts at other stadiums before the company offered those positions and hours to outside applicants. This language was extremely important for us to create more stable, year-round work and push for racial equity in hiring, because a large percentage of Black workers were being passed over for these positions time and time again.
We have language in our contract that protects our hours of work by specifying that management can’t do a bargaining unit members’ work: If a manager completes work that should have been assigned to a union worker (like preparing or serving food), the company must pay that person for their lost hours. During COVID, the stadiums were closed to fans; however, at the Lincoln Financial Field, Eagles management wanted to continue to be served food while watching the games. Due to NFL protocols, our members were not able to enter the stadium to work these games, and management served the food. Due to contract language, we won back pay for time worked by managers that should have gone to laid-off workers.
Organizing to take collective action with our union means victories in both contract negotiations and legislative efforts. Stadium workers were also very involved in a local legislative campaign to win recall rights in Philly for hospitality and food service workers across the industry, meaning we’d be rehired if we were laid off. Stadium workers testified at city council and did online actions to shine a light on the need for stronger laws to protect our jobs. Under a normal union contract, we had the standard one year to return to work after a layoff. We were able to negotiate that up to two years with Aramark due to COVID. The Recall Bill that was passed in Philly in December provides five years of recall protections, meaning our jobs are secure regardless of how long the pandemic lasts.
D'wanna Fondaw, server, 31, Boston, MA
I have worked at the Boston Park Plaza as a server for 13 years. The Boston Park Plaza hotel staff has been unionized for over 70 years, and I’m lucky to have had the union during my time here, especially during this challenging year, when I was furloughed. Over the years, UNITE HERE Local 26, the chapter of our union that I’m part of, has grown as more and more hotel and food service workers join—which means more power and better contracts. With each contract, we are fighting for more money, better benefits, and more respect. We are united as a city in fighting for the best possible jobs in hospitality.
One of the most important benefits of being in the union is affordable health insurance. I just had knee surgery in October, and there’s a good chance I’ll need follow-up surgery. I go to physical therapy every week. My union has worked hard to extend our health insurance, even while the majority of us are not working—and it's allowed me to stay healthy through all of this without worrying about whether I can afford it.
We've negotiated 30 months of recall, meaning that the hotel will have to hire us back instead of hiring new people: When work picks back up, my job will be there. Because no one's going to hotels at the moment, lots of workers in Boston have been laid off. Many without a union have been fired permanently. It happened at the Marriott Copley, at the Revere Hotel, and many others. I knew that my union contract provided me and my coworkers with protections, but it's so clear now: If I wasn't union, I could have been fired after working 13 years. I could have been kicked to the curb during a pandemic.
Henry Smith*, electrical engineer, 33, Denver, CO,
Right out of college, I worked as a field engineer with technicians who were part of a union. I wasn’t, and I worked intense hours in the field and was on call 24/7. Since I was salaried, I did all of that extra work without overtime pay.
The union workers talked openly about their salary and benefits. I came to realize that everyone was making twice what I was making, with paid overtime and better health insurance. My manager at the time managed the union guys as well, so I went to him and asked for equal treatment to my union coworkers. He said he couldn’t give me the same benefits, but could raise my salary 40 percent. I took it happily. Almost a year later, that manager moved up, and I lost everything I’d gotten. I always heard from my union coworkers, “You are one bad boss away from ruining your life.”
I went looking for a union job, found one, and reached out to people who worked there and asking them about the culture and the contract. When I got that job, it changed my life significantly. My salary almost doubled. Overtime rules are not only fair, but they also set the tone that the time is yours. I’d never worked less than 50 hours a week in my old job, plus all the weekends and random boss requests to work extra. At my union job, I make 1.5 times my pay after eight hours of work, I get a paid meal after 10 hours, and I earn double time after 16 hours. If I work weekends or holidays, I also get 1.5 times or double time. If I get a call outside normal work hours, I’m immediately paid three hours of overtime, regardless how long the call is.
We are also entitled to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. The clock starts when we report back home; if it gets interrupted by calls, it will reset to zero. If I have to show up to work the next day without eight hours of sleep, I charge the company double time until I get eight hours of rest.
When the pandemic started, the union negotiated pandemic pay with the company Since we are considered essential and we have to keep working in the field, if I or anyone I know or work with has COVID or suspicion of it, I’m entitled to take paid time off until it is safe to come back to work without touching any of my regular time off benefits.
Kenzo Shibata, teacher, 42, Chicago, IL
The Chicago teachers union was already unionized when I started teaching in 2003. What led me to become involved was the razing of public housing and the shutting down of neighborhood schools. I wanted my union to fight for our students.
We went on an 11-day strike in 2019 because the mayor of Chicago wasn't willing to bargain in good faith to improve our schools through the negotiations process. Mayor Lightfoot ran on decreasing class sizes, adding wraparound services to our schools, and increasing school funding over all. She fought us on including these provisions in the contract. The mayor threatened to cut off our insurance if our strike carried to day 12. We accepted an agreement that was historically rich in reforms, but still lacking what our students deserve. We did win a nurse, a counselor, and a social worker in every school, and additional funds for schools with high homeless populations, in addition to the social services that they very much need. The additional staff have made it possible for students to be better engaged in their lessons, students need their social emotional learning needs addressed before learning can take place. Unfortunately, the pandemic has made it abundantly clear that even these additional staff are not enough. The fight is always uphill, but we are capable organizers, and up for the challenges.
Fifteen months later, we nearly struck again against in-person learning during the pandemic. We ended up losing the fight to stay virtual, but through our fight, we were able to get agreements for real PPE for teachers and leaves of absence for teachers with immunocompromised family members. Though the leaves of absence are unpaid, they guarantee that a teacher’s job would be there when they got back.
Donna Kelly-Yu, hospitality worker, 57, Las Vegas, NV
I am a furloughed butler dispatcher at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada and I have been a Culinary Union member for over 20 years. I was laid off from my job in March 2020 due to COVID-19 shutdowns and did not receive unemployment for 11 weeks, which was a huge struggle. That same month, we started negotiations regarding the impact of COVID-19, even before there was a shutdown and casinos were closed for three months. I can’t imagine how I would have gotten through this pandemic without my union. Even in the midst of a really hard year, our union had a lot of victories and protected workers.
In the beginning of the shutdown, most Culinary Union members had never been on unemployment. Our union was really instrumental in helping thousands of workers sign up for unemployment benefits. My union supported me throughout every step, and when I finally got my unemployment and everything that was owed to me after 11 weeks of waiting, it was a huge relief. The Culinary Union’s Culinary Academy of Las Vegas also provided over 200,000 packages of food to furloughed workers. My husband and I go every other week to get groceries there. It’s quality groceries, like potatoes, chicken, rice, beans, tortillas, fruit, pork tenderloin, squash, and zucchini.
Our union protected our job security. Tens of thousands of workers like me, even though we are not working, have the right to return to their jobs as the economy recovers and business resumes. My health care for my family and me was also protected even though I wasn’t working. My union advocated for (and won) an eviction moratorium that helped so many Nevadans stay in their homes during a global health crisis. We worked really hard to pass the nation’s first and only COVID-19 worker safety statewide law. The Adolfo Fernandez Bill requires comprehensive measures to protect hospitality employees and customers against the spread of COVID-19 statewide.
Having a good contract has helped ensure workers like me, who work in the industry hit hardest during the pandemic, were protected. We kept our health insurance, our job security, and we will be recalled back to work. Workers like me are the reason people are getting through this pandemic.