Working for Workers' Rights
Going incognito with "I â™¥ union casino workers" shirts hidden under their jackets, Seth Kennedy and 15 others waited at the slot machines at the Ameristar Casino in Indiana for the signal to storm the public rotunda. Their plan was to initiate a "flash mob" in the center of Ameristar's only union casino, which is notoriously aggressive in their anti-union tactics, and chant "we love the workers, yes we do, we love the workers, how 'bout you?"
As Kennedy's group began to move into position, they were immediately swarmed by upwards of 30 Indiana Gaming Commission officers. One organizer was arrested, and the rest were physically pushed out the door.
"While I was aware that vicious, occasionally violent opposition to unions existed, I had never experienced it face-to-face before," says Kennedy. "Having been through that, I now know what I can expect as I continue the fight for worker justice through this summer and beyond."
Kennedy, a political science major, has always wanted to get involved in union work, inspired by his father, a union-side labor lawyer. UNITE HERE (Union of Needlepoint Industry Trade Employees - Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees) Local 1, the union he is working with through the Interfaith Worker Justice summer internship program, is one of his dad's clients.
Interfaith Worker Justice is a network of people of faith that aims to improve wages, benefits, and conditions for workers, especially those in low-wage jobs. With the help of funding from Haverford's Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, Kennedy has been organizing with UNITE HERE's hotel team, which represents workers in hotels, restaurants, and some garment workers.
Chicago's hotels negotiate their contracts on a citywide basis, and employees have been working for the past year without a new contract. Kennedy is assisting as an organizer on the union's campaign to increase pressure on the hotels' management to agree to a new contract. He has been researching potential partner organizations and helping to organize pickets.
The most powerful part of his experience so far has been forming relationships with the people who work in these hotels, says Kennedy. One set-up man in a hotel banquet department is a human rights lawyer from Guinea who fled for his own personal safety. Another, a dish-washer, is a certified accountant from Sierra Leone.
"It has been simultaneously incredible to get to know these amazing people, and heart-breaking to see that people with such finely-trained skills are forced into these jobs and treated like animals," he says. "Whether it be because of their status as immigrants or their status as 'unskilled' laborers, the hotels treat [them] as garbage. Seeing this firsthand is what inspires me to come to work every day."
Kennedy is seriously considering a career in union organizing, so he sees this summer as a trial run that will help him discover how he feels working in the field. Even if he decides not to go the union route in the future, says Kennedy, "The campaign organizing experience will help with whatever career in the world of community service or politics that I choose."
--Heather Harden '11