Union Leadership Evaded Pay Cuts as Pandemic Devastated Membership

A UNITE HERE union member / Getty Images
May 10, 2021

A California hospitality union spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on political campaigns and executive salaries as the coronavirus crisis ravaged its membership.

UNITE HERE Local 11, which represents more than 32,000 hospitality workers in California and Arizona, saw upward of 95 percent of its membership laid off at the peak of the coronavirus crisis. By the end of 2020, membership had declined by nearly 40 percent. Still, executives barely saw their salaries decrease in the face of the membership's struggles, with the top three leaders taking pay cuts of around 1 percent. The union also continued to spend on political initiatives, pumping more than $431,000 into the 2019-2020 cycle.

Additionally, as California ordered lockdown measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, the union sent members to Georgia to canvass for Democratic Senate candidates prior to the January runoff elections in defiance of the state's orders. The union campaigned with the voter-registration nonprofit group New Georgia Project, founded by Stacey Abrams.

A temporarily out-of-work member of the union expressed frustration with the union's priorities. The member told the Washington Free Beacon that the union was unresponsive to concerns about health benefits and was difficult to contact. He said that setting up meetings with union officials was nearly impossible.

"Some members, they do wonder what the union is doing with the dues. ... I don't think [union leaders] actually care about the members," the member said. "They care about their pockets, that's all they care about."

UNITE HERE Local 11 did not respond to a request for comment on the report or on the member's criticisms of the union.

The report also comes after the union became embroiled in controversy for demanding its members pay dues amid layoffs from the coronavirus. According to members, the union said continued access to its health insurance benefits was contingent on paying membership dues. The maximum dues owed by members also increased from $66 to $76 between 2019 and 2020, according to filings.

The demand for dues prompted a letter from lawmakers calling on the union to stop collecting payments. "We are concerned that the continuing collection of union dues from unemployed workers is imposing an additional and unnecessary hardship on these workers and their families—making it even more difficult for struggling Americans to make ends meet," the lawmakers wrote.

The member said union leaders throttle any internal criticism of the union's activism.

"If the union says something that's not appropriate, even if we complain about it, there's nothing to be done about it," the member said. "It's like a giant parasite."

Published under: Big Labor , Feature