By ADAM RITSCHER
DULUTH, Minn.-This is a blue-collar city if there ever was one. It is a city with a rich and powerful labor history, revolving around taconite mines, paper factories, steel mills, and the port.
The last few decades, though, have been tough on this city. Many of the factories are now abandoned or have been torn down.
The city of Duluth has attempted to replace these industrial jobs by promoting tourism. The downtown has been renovated and numerous hotels and lodges dot Duluth and the North Shore.
While the city has invested tens of millions of dollars in these projects, and lent millions more to the businessmen who have built hotels in the city, the tourist industry jobs that have been created are very much inferior in every way to the industrial jobs they are meant to replace.
Hotel workers are paid only $6.50 hour for back-breaking work, and are generally only allowed to work around 30 hours a week. Turnover is huge, since most workers either find they can’t live on that, or get fired for resisting management’s speed-ups or abuse.
But many workers in Duluth’s hotels have decided to fight back by getting organized. Workers at the Inn on Lake Superior, Hawthorne Suites, Comfort Suites, Hampton Inn, and the Canal Park Inn have hooked up with Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 99 to try to win union wages and working conditions.
At the initiative of Local 99, a community coalition of churches, activist groups and various community groups have come together to form United for Social and Economic Justice (USEJ). The goal of the coalition is to mobilize community support behind the hotel workers.
In this way the union hopes to win representation without going through the under-staffed, under-financed, and pro-employer National Labor Relations Board (under which most union elections are held).
On Sept. 22, a public rally was held to bring public attention to the plight of hotel workers and the demand that the hotels sign the card-check neutrality agreements.
Despite cold rain and wind, over 250 working men and women of all ages turned out to march through Canal Park, Duluth’s tourist district, to an outdoor rally featuring several labor and political leaders and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Many came from other unions, as their union jackets denoted, but others came from the hotels, the community groups in USEJ, Duluth’s Black, Latino, and Native American communities, and from the various high school and college campuses.
The protesters marched in silence in honor of the workers who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist bombings, but at the rally raised their voices in outrage against the working conditions and wages hotel workers are forced to endure.
It was a powerful opening salvo against the hotels, and an important demonstration of the support and solidarity that hotel workers have from other workers in the city.
We hope that it is the beginning of a successful union organizing drive, and that out of this struggle organizing momentum can be built up that will spread to the hundreds of other non-union workplaces throughout the region!
Adam Ritscher is a housekeeper at the Inn on Lake Superior.