Happy workers for a healthy economy 

Union sets sights on '99 legislature

Strong labor movement boosts economic development

It was the first union convention in Missoula in nearly three decades, and the members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union were out to the make the most of it. So for one evening, the Florence Hotel's Governor's Room-reasonably swank accommodations by Missoula standards-was transformed into Labor Central.

Big mustached Teamster emissaries straight from the old school mixed with scrappy, next-generation laborites. Twentysomething shuttle drivers from Whitefish swapped war stories with reporters. Union Club bartenders supped on Cajun food provided by HERE-affiliated caterers alongside Missoula's newly organized meter maids.

While the unionized barkeeps from Marvin's poured cocktails, wine and beer on the cheap, a Libertarian congressional candidate scoured for votes. Lifelong service workers and labor veterans-a few people on hand got their 50-year pins-mingled with first-time dishwashers and newly minted college grads eagerly awaiting their first dates with the National Labor Relations Board.

After dinner was served, San Francisco organizer Sherri Chiesa recounted the successful unionization of that city's new Marriott Hotel, the first, she said, to be organized from the get-go. The success, she noted, came with help from the city government, original owner of the land Marriott built on. That fusion of political power and organization success, according to Chiesa, should illuminate labor's 21st century path.

Beyond political activism, Chiesa urged unionists to maintain good relationships with employers who recognize and work with unions.

"Let's spend our time and energy going after non-union employers who don't treat us with respect," she said to the applause of assembled workers and organizers.

But it's not as though HERE leaders have spent the last year lounging around their offices. After a tumultuous-and unresolved-1997 Union Summer campaign to organize a Lantis Enterprise nursing home and Grouse Mountain Lodge resort workers up in the Flathead Valley, the labor group has logged victories in Missoula and across the state. Newly added to the list of card-carrying members are employees at The Medicine Tree clinic in St. Ignatius, Missoula's Creekside Inn, Creative Catering, and meter maids, the Western Bar in Billings, and the Butte/Rocker 4B's.

"It's been a very, very exciting year for us," organizer Melissa Case said after listing off their new locals. "We've been working hard, continuing to win, and looking forward to keeping that up."

On the agenda for the next 12 months is a push at the legislature. The state Department of Commerce plans to promote an economic development package to lawmakers in 1999 that includes the tourism industry, and HERE wants a piece of that action. When Commerce Director Peter Blouke stopped by the union's convention last week for a roundtable on the subject (dubbed "Tourism not Poorism"), union leaders and rank and file alike pursued him with vigor. Many pointed out that the good jobs, wages and benefits that come with union organizing strengthen communities, and that the state ought to be more supportive of labor efforts.

Among other requests, HERE Local #427 president Jacquie Helt asked Blouke to consider putting union representatives on the state's Tourism Advisory Council.

According to a report issued by HERE, the state's shift from a mining, timber and agriculture dependent economy to tourism has meant a sharp drop in wages. "From 1984 to 1994 farming lost 3,500 jobs and agriculture lost 2,300 jobs. While these jobs were disappearing, service industry jobs were quickly rising," the report reads.

"Unfortunately, these jobs cannot claim to provide family and community sustainability as well as the mining and farming jobs they are replacing. Farmers average $12,412 in yearly income, which-while pitifully low-is still $1,500 more than the average for any other tourism job; metal mining pays on average $15.26 an hour, twice as much as the average for any tourism job."

Low wages mean communities have a smaller tax base to draw upon, union members point out, and the wide-ranging effects can be seen in the quality of schools, health care, infrastructure and more.

One man said that the department's emphasis on creating manufacturing jobs is misplaced. "Those jobs got to be good jobs because historically, they had a heavy concentration of organized labor involvement," he said. "If we want to make tourism jobs good jobs, we don't need to bring manufacturing jobs in. With $1.4 billion in tourism money coming in every year, there doesn't seem to be any reason to go outside where our natural strengths are."

Blouke said he would welcome more labor participation in his economic development proposal, but disagreed that the state ought to be giving more support to unions, saying numerous times, "I don't think that's the role of government."

Melissa Case came back at him in disagreement-to the nodding approval of the two dozen conference attendees at the forum-saying, "It is the role of government to protect citizens when it comes to not earning a living wage, health care, good schools for kids. It is the role of government to address these issues, and we'll see you in Helena."

Photo by Lise Thompson
John Hirsch says his efforts to improve his lot as a shuttle driver caused him to be fired from Whitefish's Grouse Mountain Lodge.

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