What two students learned from their experience interning at a labor union. The following are their reflections.
He Li recently graduated from the University of Washington. He had an APALA fellowship which allowed him to work with the Service Employees International Union, (SEIU), Local 6.
I was in a downtown Seattle skyscraper, a few minutes after ten at night, in a room where some fifteen middle-aged men and women gathered around a long table, gobbling their homemade meals, conversing with each other with mouths full of food, in their Cantonese dialect which I could not understand. Their energy would remind one of soldiers devouring a meal before returning to battlefield, using every opportunity to resolve the tension with good humor. I noticed a particular man who had just sat down, his gleaming eyes fixated upon a large, clear container in front of him with nothing but steamed rice and boiled cabbage inside. His whole pile of food looked so bland that it conjured up childhood memories of broccoli, yet he ate the meal with a most vigorous passion.
This was the scene in front of me, my first experience with a union, referred by an acquaintance, to use my language abilities to translate for union organizers during a building visit. I learned that these janitors clean floors of skyscrapers until 2 a.m. in the morning, return home and sleep until noon, take care of the next day’s businesses before 5 p.m. so they can commute to work before 6 p.m., and this half hour “lunch” is their longest break. Out of them was this man, who had worked many years in this wearisome profession, choosing to eat unappetizing food for the only relaxing time during work, in contrast with me, a volunteer, a lazy university student, with the fortune to indulge in restaurants daily. It wasn’t until several months later that I could speculate on his motivation, during a union backpack giveaway event, where he held his daughter’s hand along with his wife, smiling and strolling through the crowd of janitors. I realized that his responsibility was his motivation to work; with each dollar on meals he saves, he was able to provide for his family.
The internship experience allowed me to hear immigrant workers’ stories which were all too long to tell. These workers come to the U.S. seeking the American Dream, which to them is nothing more than a survivable wage sufficient to raise a family. They are not preoccupied with evading taxes whenever possible or “upgrading locations” that they don’t have. They experience joy in merely dedicating themselves to a stable profession, a value they deem central to the American Dream.
Such working individuals are the most concrete elements of the labor struggle. The union is their touching stories and their modest hopes.
Amy Leong is currently an undergraduate at the University of Washington. She had an internship with UNITE HERE, Local 8.
The Seattle Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) is convening the first Seattle Asian/Pacific Islander Workers’ Hearing on Saturday, November 19, from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. at the Asian Counseling & Referral Service gym, located at 3639 Martin Luther King Jr., Way South, in Seattle. Workers from the service sector, education, health-care and public sector will testify about the challenges they face in their workplaces. To learn more about the hearing, contact Tracy Lai at [email protected]
A great internship is one that can really make the difference in an amazing summer between school. What I had this past summer was an amazing time interning as a summer organizer for UNITE HERE Local 8. I had the opportunity to explore and gain more knowledge about organizing and the role of organizers. As the local representing hotel and restaurant workers in the King County area (UNITE HERE) I was able to learn about the different industries and jobs by talking to workers and building relationships with them. Besides sitting at a desk from 9-5, I instead rallied, visited workers at their jobs, flash mobbed and was part of a civil disobedience.
It was great not being an intern but a summer organizer. As a summer organizer, I was able to work side by side with others which allowed me to go and talk to workers from the Westin, Hilton, Edgewater, Space Needle and Sea-Tac and just hear their stories. I finally was able to put a face on these places that we take for granted. I was able to learn about these workers and how they are the ones that allow these businesses to run successfully everyday. I heard stories from workers who have been working at the same place from a couple of months to over 25 years. I even learned that some responsibilities such as housekeeping tasks can over time, harm one’s health. From lifting heavy beds to tucking sheets, being on your hands and knees to clean the tubs, and using chemicals to clean can be physically harmful and toxic to the body. It was very interesting to learn about how jobs we don’t even think about are the hardest ones.
Hearing these stories, we as summer organizers wanted to do something that would bring attention to these workers and the issues they face everyday. We decided to organize a flash mob for workers at the Westin. As one of the four summer organizers at Local 8, we re-wrote and re-recorded a song, choreographed a dance, and recruited about 40 people to participate. At that time and still currently, the Westin is in contract negotiations so we wanted to make a statement and let the company know that we as the community are supporting these workers.
From this internship, I was able to not only learn about the jobs but also establish personal relationships with these workers and learn about the hardships they have endured to get to where they are now. I know how hard they work each day and I can see how important it is to have unions. I have a parent who is part of Local 8 and one who isn’t and I see the difference. I understand that we need to fight to retain and improve working conditions for those who do have representation. I learned more in-depth about organizing and what it actually means to have representation in the workplace. I learned a lot this past summer that I will use for my future in organizing. This internship was as real as it gets.