As part of our recent Forum on Labor’s Future, panelist Eric Gill delivered a presentation on his experience in driving labor and union transformation. The following is a summary of the key points he presented, and the full presentation is available to watch below.
Given the state of the American labor movement, it’s critical that the left renew its commitment to labor transformation. When unions transform, it happens from the bottom-up. And as many unions have seen their power decline and their administrations fail their workers, they will need activists to help renew and transform them.
With this analysis, Eric and his cohort pursued the transformation of the hotel workers’ union in Hawaii. Eric himself joined as a janitor in Waikiki after a discussion about strategic industries in the islands, recognizing the major role that the tourism industry plays in Hawaii’s economy. But the union had long been a reactionary one, and was in desperate need of reform.
Knowing that the union is defined by its membership, Eric and his cohort worked to develop a core of activist left workers within the union as the vehicle for change. And ultimately they were successful, managing to transform union leadership.
This work was not without its challenges. The cohort had to immerse itself within the union, learning which leaders could be allies and which were opposed to their aims. Organizing within the union, they made a point to unite with leaders when they were doing the right work, and were not afraid to expose them when they didn’t. Strike actions were especially fertile ground for driving change, since they move workers’ class consciousness rapidly and move the economic struggle into a political struggle. Nevertheless, the “price of admission” was high, as Eric’s cohort had to contend with participating in both of the administrations they eventually deposed.
Transforming union leadership is not enough, though. Eric and his cohort continued to build out their progressive core by finding worker leaders and starting a committee-building program. The reason is clear: worker leaders are much more effective than anyone else at getting through to people. Their efforts have largely been successful and continue to pay off, as much of the union’s work is now led by the committee leaders they trained.
After their successful takeover, the renewed union began to focus on what was important. They began to turn their attention towards development of worker leaders among immigrant members — the large majority of the membership, which had previously been neglected. These efforts continue to pay off, as the support of immigrant workers has made their continued work possible.
With this transformation, the union has since been able to achieve a number of major victories. During a strike, the union created the slogan “one job should be enough,” which went beyond the very small $1.50 wage increases the union previously devoted attention to. Not only did this strengthen the resolve of the workers, but it also transformed the union’s public relations. As Eric explains, they were no longer seen as the corrupt guys, but rather the guys in the red shirts out there fighting and supporting the other movements in the community. As a result, they were able to build support among tourists, some of whom even donated to the strike fund.
The union also developed new capacity to shape change on a national level. During the 2020 Presidential election, the union deployed 1,700 trained organizers to the field to work doors in swing states like Arizona, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. As one of the only unions deploying an effort like this, their work was invaluable and ultimately succeeded in helping flip the states and ensure a Trump defeat.
Eric’s experience demonstrates that we have an extraordinary moment where we can build worker power and start shifting the balance, as public perception of unions and labor is high — but we must not miss our chance. Now is the time to salt the unions with progressive activists who are focused on long-term unity with workers and wider social change in unions. And it’s vital to remember, workers want this. They want the union to be powerful, they want a program that advances their conditions, and they want solidarity.
As Eric concluded, “Solidarity for many years has been a word. Now, we need action.”
Hear the full presentation from the Forum on Labor’s Future below.