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Fresh off big Senate wins, Unite Here leader thinks even bigger

The union organized Capitol dining workers and boosted Democrats in key states

Senate cafeteria workers and Unite Here Local 23 members attend a rally on Capitol Hill in April.
Senate cafeteria workers and Unite Here Local 23 members attend a rally on Capitol Hill in April. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“It was a graveyard before the union,” Malcom McCombs said as his Senate cafeteria colleagues nodded.

McCombs was seated in a corner of the cafeteria in the Dirksen Building basement with four other members of Unite Here Local 23, talking about what’s changed since his workplace organized and reached a collective bargaining agreement last year

“Now it’s fun to come to work,” said McCombs. “People are smiling.”

He looked across the table at D. Taylor, international president of the 300,000-member union of culinary and casino workers. Based in Las Vegas, Taylor was in Washington to meet with lawmakers — particularly Democrats who should be thankful for his union’s help winning Senate races in Nevada, Pennsylvania, Arizona and potentially Georgia. 

But he was also here to listen to frontline workers like McCombs and Thomas Jones, who described what a difference it has made getting health insurance through work. “I’m a diabetic,” Jones said. “Before I had to go outside the job to pay for insulin. It’s helped me out a lot.”

Better pay has made a major difference to his family, said McCombs, turning serious. It allowed him to quit his second job, which meant he was home a few weeks ago when he noticed his daughter’s phone lighting up with texts from names he didn’t recognize. His daughter said they were other teenagers she’d met through social media, but McCombs did some digging and found out they were adults lying about their ages. “If I was still working the other job, I would’ve missed that,” he said.

The group chatted about what’s next, including shop steward training and traveling to battleground states in future elections to get out the vote. It’s been a year since Senate cafeteria workers voted to unionize, and they’ve been busy. They still faced the threat of layoffs up until a collective bargaining agreement was finalized in October

Rarely have labor issues hit so close to home on the Hill. The Senate cafeteria workers are employed by outside contractor Restaurant Associates, but they feed hungry powerbrokers at the Capitol. A few Democratic senators showed up as allies in the recent fight, even appearing on the picket lines. Meanwhile, lawmakers on the House side have seen some of their office staffers vote to form unions of their own.

For Taylor, being in Washington is a chance to see that convergence in action. The Capitol is both a workplace in its own right — and the place where decisions get made that affect workers all across the country.

Attainable goals

In an interview, Taylor talked about the importance of meeting with the rank-and-file. “You get your juice, your energy, all that stuff when you’re dealing with our members [and] future members,” he said.

He started his career in organizing as a Georgetown University student working at a unionized local restaurant. Now he draws inspiration from stories like McCombs’ and Jones’. “We ought to continue to figure out how to do more because — you heard it yourself — when people got a good contract, they don’t have to work two jobs,” he said. “They can actually be a parent. I mean, that’s just part of the American dream.”

Taylor said part of his job was to listen to workers’ concerns and help translate them into attainable terms in collective bargaining agreements.

Another part of his job is to look at the split-party makeup of this Congress and figure out what he can ask of supportive legislators. Taylor knows the long-sought legislative goal of organized labor — the encompassing PRO Act — doesn’t have the votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster. So he has smaller asks to make — well, relatively smaller.

Unite Here President D. Taylor, seen at left in 2018 with Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto, once again mobilized his union behind candidates in key Senate races this election cycle. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

“We’re very interested in having immigration reform,” Taylor said, calling it long overdue. “That actually should be more and more a bipartisan issue because of … labor shortages.”

Taylor would also like to see an extension of the expanded child tax credit passed in the 2021 COVID-19 relief package. That $3,600-per-child credit was found to reduce childhood poverty by 29 percent without discouraging parents from working.  

Those are two issues important to Unite Here’s membership, which is heavily Hispanic.

Only then did Taylor mention “some stuff on organizing,” though he wouldn’t share specifics of how Congress could beef up enforcement. “There are a lot of people smarter than me that think about that,” he said. It’s clear he would rather focus on what his union, and others like it, can do on their own to organize more workplaces. 

“We have to take advantage of this moment,” he said, noting an upswing in organizing across the nation even as overall union membership numbers keep creeping down.

‘Big campaigns’

Taylor credited four factors for organized labor’s momentum: a highly frustrated and fearful workforce, the labor shortage, “the most pro-union [presidential] administration, probably ever,” and a new generation of workers that’s enthusiastically pro-union.

“Workers gave up on corporate America taking care of them. They really did. And I think that’s happened in the last few years,” Taylor said. “During COVID particularly, it was very clear: You’re on your own.”

“There’s no movement ever that doesn’t involve a bunch of youth,” Taylor added. “Old people don’t create movements, young people do.”

To that end, Taylor wants to see the big unions focused on organizing as many workplaces as possible.

“We have to do some big campaigns that unify the labor movement,” he said. “These truly global companies — you can’t expect a few workers to take them on.”

Taylor is calling for the major unions to collectively target some of the emerging large industries, such as clean energy or e-retailers like Amazon, much as the labor movement did in the 1930s when the United Auto Workers organized American car manufacturers.

“All of a sudden sudden, workers are standing up against the titans of industry in our country, and it spurred people all over,” he said.

Other labor leaders agree with that, Taylor said. The challenge is figuring out how to do it, especially given how much workplaces have changed recently. He noted that Unite Here’s best staff organizers — the men and women who basically operate as labor consultants and help guide workplaces through the legal steps of forming a union — have been at it for “10, 20 years.”

“It’s hard to change habits or strategies,” Taylor said. “But workers are in a different place — that’s pretty clear to me. We haven’t adapted to that yet, overall, in the labor movement.”

Where Taylor may disagree with other labor leaders is his willingness to take risks and try organizing workplaces even if they might not ultimately form a union. That runs the hazard of exposing some workers who management will subsequently dismiss and, given enough losses, turning the prevailing narrative of labor gains into one about a string of stinging defeats.

But “the workers are exposed every day without the union,” Taylor said. “They’re getting screwed. So, that’s not the question. The question is, are we going to be as courageous as those workers are?”

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