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Cleve Jones: Unions Have Our Backs and We Need to Return the Favor


The legendary activist is fighting for UNITE HERE's members and asking LGBTQ people to help if they can.

Has it only been three months?

I was in Dallas for the Creating Change Conference, part of a 25-member delegation of LGBTQ hospitality-industry workers from my labor union, UNITE HERE. We were there to affirm UNITE HERE's commitment to LGBTQ equality and to inform activists and organizers of our fight to win better wages, health care, and working conditions for employees of the HMS Host Corporation at airport Starbucks across the United States. Our team included workers from Orlando, Honolulu, Denver, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, San Francisco, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Seattle, and Portland. We were strengthened and inspired by the solidarity and goodwill we experienced at the conference. And we were proud to represent our fighting union, which had just completed its most successful year for organizing new members in its more than 125-year history.

No one who was in Dallas that week could have imagined how our world would soon be transformed. Or in Atlanta, for that matter, where UNITE HERE's executive board was gathering that same week to celebrate the accomplishments of the previous year and set even higher goals for the year ahead. The global pandemic of COVID-19 has since claimed tens of thousands of lives and shattered our economy. Among the hardest hit industries are the ones where our members work, hospitality and travel.

UNITE HERE estimates that by the time the pandemic subsides, more than 90 percent of workers in hotels, airports, casinos and food service in the United States and Canada will have been laid off. The majority of these workers are women, immigrants, and people of color. Queer and transgender workers are particularly vulnerable. Sadly, the statistics show a dramatic racial disparity in outcomes for COVID-19 infections, with the highest death rates among communities of color.

Many of those who were part of our delegation in Dallas have since lost their jobs, are confined to their homes, and are struggling to navigate the unemployment claims process. Some won't have enough money to pay next month's rent. "I was working with my coworkers to organize a labor union with UNITE HERE Local 23," says Grayson Landauer, an HMSHost Starbucks barista at the Denver airport. "Then less than 2 weeks away from our union election, I was furloughed from my job with no guarantee of when or even if I would get paid again."

Grayson is one of many young leaders I worked with this past year, and it hurts my heart to know how they are suffering. But I've endured enough sadness, suffering and loss in my time to know that life is bigger than just that. Life comes back around, it always does. But not without struggle. Never without struggle.

UNITE HERE has a long, proud record of real support for LGBTQ workers. Through collective bargaining we negotiate contracts that protect workers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender expression -- even in states where no such protections exist under law.

Someday we will go back to work. Someday the schools will reopen. Someday the airports and hotels will fill with travelers. Someday restaurants and bars and ballparks will be crowded again.

Today our members need your help. The UNITE HERE Education and Support Fund helps workers throughout the hospitality industry -- union members ad non-union members alike -- keep their health insurance while they're unemployed, replace lost wages, avoid eviction, and retrain for new jobs. Please give what you can!

Cleve Jones is a long-time labor and LGBTQ+ activist, mentored by Harvey Milk. Jones is the co-founder of the San Francisco AIDS coalition, founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, and author of When We Rise: My Life in the Movement. Since 2005, Jones has been a Community and Political Coordinator with UNITE HERE, the North American hospitality workers' union.

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