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The new face of unions

The new face of unions

Young hipsters are filling the ranks in the service industry

By Joanna Weiss

Globe Columnist / May 29, 2011


AT A recent installment of “Cocktail Wars,’’ a bartending competition on the Boston nightlife circuit, hotel worker Melissa Godfrey glanced around the room and noted how many people she knew from union organizing work. Over there, a young woman who works at the W Boston. Up there, a bartender from KO Prime, the swank steakhouse at Nine Zero.

“Most of the people in the room were union,’’ she said.

This isn’t the image union members tend to hold in the public imagination. They’re all aging hacks, right? Lazy workers who can never be fired? Certainly not a core component of the local hipster scene.

Or maybe unions’ image needs rethinking.

Economic reality has put the squeeze on unions, especially in the public sector. Even here in labor-friendly Massachusetts, unions have made unprecedented health care concessions. Private-sector unions have lost public support, as their membership has dwindled. Nationwide, only about 12 percent of private-sector workers are unionized. (Disclosure: I’m one of them.)

But in Boston — in the service industry, at least — union membership is actually growing. Unite Here Local 26 now covers 60 percent of workers at the the city’s full-service hotels, up from 40 percent a decade ago. Earlier this month, 200 staffers at the W Boston and the Back Bay Hotel voted to join.

Their ranks include Godfrey, 29, a server at Nine Zero for the past nine years. With good pay and job security, she was able to buy a condo in Jamaica Plain. And her good health benefits are even more important now that she’s expecting her first child.

There’s also Arthur Bergevin, 24, a Brandeis graduate who works as a food runner at the W Boston, and plays drums in a band called The Tin Thistles. The union contract gives him more control over his schedule, helping him juggle work and gigs. He can pay the bills while he chases a music career.

The Unite Here contract covers all hotel workers, from hipsters in trendy bars to the immigrants who do much of the backbreaking housekeeping work. All of them get a pension, health care, and job protection. Their wages are fair, but hardly exorbitant, given Boston’s obscene cost of living. Room attendants start at $16.23 per hour with full benefits.

From a business standpoint, there are good reasons for hotels to work with unions. Local 26 president Brian Lang notes that when hotel workers share a citywide payscale, it’s harder for one hotel to undercut the rest. Service workers, on the frontlines of guest interaction, might as well be happy and committed.

And then there’s the macro sense. Yes, Mayor Menino gets election day help from unions, including Local 26, said Michael Kineavy, the city’s director of policy and planning. But Menino also appreciates the economic benefits a union can bring to the city. Local 26 offers training for its workers and, increasingly, helps young people climb the job ladder. Many of its members live in the city. Their salaries help fuel local businesses, build a tax base, and stabilize neighborhoods.

Public disdain for unions often comes with an assumption that the time for organized labor has passed — that now that we have OSHA and the 40-hour week, there’s no role for unions anymore. And, yes, a union contract can make it harder to fire bad workers.

But a contract makes it harder to fire good workers, too, such as the non-union housekeepers, some of them 20-year veterans, who were fired from Boston’s Hyatt hotels in 2009. They were replaced by subcontractors making half their salaries. But a stable middle class is not made at $8 an hour.

In fact, the still-going economic crisis presents a strong argument for the modest wealth-building that unions can bring. Plenty of deficit hawks howl at the prospect of raising taxes for top brackets, lest we bring job creation to a crashing halt.

But there’s also an economic trickle-down effect that comes with fair wages and stability, with a middle class that can afford health insurance, save for a stable retirement, and pay the bills.

If a union can deliver that, it’s relevant, still. Just ask the hipster behind the bar.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at

© Copyright 2011 Globe Newspaper Company.