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Republicans claim to be pro-worker. Let them prove it

As the GOP descends on Milwaukee for its national convention, will delegates show solidarity with beleaguered hospitality staff?

By Sohrab Ahmari

Donald Trump promised to create a working-class Republican Party when he won the election in 2016. This is still more aspiration than reality. Too often, the party’s record on labour has been identical to what preceded Trump. But as Republicans head to their convention in Milwaukee in July, they have an opportunity to set a better tone: by siding with hospitality workers struggling to win recognition for their union at the Trade hotel, one of the city’s marquee venues.

“There’s nothing that would make me better off as a worker than having a union,” William, one of the activist workers, told me (he declined to use his real name for fear of retaliation from management). “I would ask the GOP to say to the hotel, ‘I’m not going to patronise your business if I hear that you are taking any kind of action against these workers and their right to have a union.’”

Located steps away from the Fiserv Forum, where Republicans will formally crown Trump as their nominee, the Trade opened in 2023 to great fanfare. With three high-end dining options and rooms that go for upwards of $500 a night, the hotel is part of the broader redevelopment of downtown Milwaukee launched a decade ago. But while this urban renewal has generated thousands of service jobs, few of these are good ones.

In this sense, Milwaukee is a microcosm of the American economy. The Midwestern city once boasted a vibrant manufacturing landscape – with factories churning out everything from boilers and motors to leather and beer – and an equally vibrant industrial labour movement. But then the plants went under or went away, and the working class was left holding the bag.

As Peter Rickman, president of the Milwaukee Area Service and Hospitality Workers Organization, or Mash – the independent union that’s organising the Trade hotel – said: “When this city was defined by tens of thousands of good union jobs in factories and foundries we were considered one of the best places in America for working-class people, including people of colour.” But in the wake of deindustrialisation, “it’s been awful”.

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The service gigs that have replaced stable factory work offer low pay, shaky job security, paltry-to-non-existent benefits and precarious scheduling. Conditions among the Trade hotel’s employees are all too typical.

William identified scheduling precarity as his fellow workers’ foremost grievance: “There’s no guarantee of how you’re scheduled. Will you get the hours that you need to get by? Will you be getting your schedule ahead of time when you need advance notice? Because this is for most of us one of several jobs that we work.”

A third of the 25 million Americans employed in retail and hospitality receive less than a week’s notice of their upcoming schedules, according to a 2019 University of California study. Workers treated this way sleep poorly and suffer mentally. And their children are more likely to exhibit anxiety and misbehave because their parents can’t find time to spend with them playing, eating family meals and doing homework.

The more fundamental crisis is employees’ near-total lack of countervailing power in the workplace. Said William: “Even if you have a good relationship with your manager, and if they have an open-door policy where you can come with your issues, you have no actual guarantee besides ‘trust us’. They can still decide whether they want to listen to you at all, or if they want to kind of address your issues, or if they’re going to make up their own fixes that don’t actually solve the problem.”

At its worst, this power imbalance allows management to deploy heavy-handed disciplinary methods. At the Trade a few months ago, according to two sources with knowledge of the matter, bosses barred a worker from going home after claiming that the bar team wasn’t doing a good job of keeping track of the cash.

“You might be getting fired over this,” the employee was told. Cops appeared, with managers allegedly implying that the employee might face prosecution for theft. In response, a spokesperson for the Trade has said the hotel’s management is unaware of such an incident. According to the sources, however, after an agonising hour and a half during which the employee broke down in tears, the staff member was informed that they could go home after all, and that this had been a show of force to underscore the importance of accurate cash management.

It was against this grim backdrop that a majority of workers signed a card expressing a desire to organise under the auspices of Mash. Yet the hotel refused to honour their preference, insisting on a formal election to be held on 27 June, and using the interval to promote the usual “union-avoidance” propaganda. And since the election takes place within a small period of time on a single day, workers with multiple jobs may not be able to cast a ballot.

The Trade is likely to host GOP guests associated with the Republican National Convention. Said Rickman: “What pro-worker Republicans can do is tell the Trade that they won’t book events around the RNC at the hotel in solidarity with the workers. And they should say, ‘We don’t want to be part of a world where an employer gets to substitute its judgement for that of workers as to whether to have a union or not.’”

It’s a rare thing when a political party gets such a clear, tangible chance to put its money where its mouth is.

[See also: Ukraine’s peace summit deserved to fail]

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, How to Fix a Nation