UNITE HERE convention celebrates New Haven’s union victories
Local 35 UNITE HERE President Bob Proto welcomes the presidency of Gwen Mills, pictured on the screen, along with a busload of union members and allies from New Haven. | Photo by Ken Suzuki

NEW HAVEN, Conn.—On June 20, a bus packed full of New Haven union members and community supporters left here at dawn, headed to the UNITE HERE convention in New York City. The theme of the convention was “It’s Up to Us/Depende de Nosotros,” asserting the labor community’s independent and unique role in US politics and looking ahead to its continuing role in advancing and defending our rights from the fascist right.

Delegates and guests arrived from all over the country as well as from Canada to celebrate the accelerating momentum of the labor movement, undeterred by CEOs seeking to maximize profits in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Upon arrival, the delegates and guests from Connecticut were tasked with triumphantly flooding the stage to welcome incoming UNITE HERE President Gwen Mills. Mills, a native of New Haven who has since brought her organizing skills to the national level, was greeted by hugs from her New Haven friends and allies.

Images were projected in the background from the victories of the labor movement from the early days of Local 35, Service and Maintenance Workers Union at Yale, which has been active in New Haven since the 1930s, to the formation of Local 34 Clerical and Technical Workers 40 years ago, to the most recent recognition of Local 33, Graduate Teachers at Yale, which won one of the best graduate worker contracts in the country in 2023.

In setting the expectations for her tenure as president, Mills reflected on her experience as an organizer in New Haven. In the early 2000s, Mills was a leader in the Connecticut Center for a New Economy, which sought to unite the labor movement with the movement for immigrant rights, racial justice, affordable housing, good schools, and a green economy.

She then became the Political Field Director for UNITE HERE in New Haven in 2007, where she took on the corporate power of Yale University. UNITE HERE initiated the grassroots organization New Haven Rising with Rev. Scott Marks as Director, which brings together labor and community members for economic justice.

Led the effort

In 2011, Gwen Mills led the effort by New Haven Rising to run union members for positions on the Board of Alders in New Haven, and 14 of 15 races were victorious. The union members won a supermajority on the Board of Alders and have held on to it ever since.

Mills’ speech was centered on the topic of generosity, which she attributed to her grandmother. She highlighted the importance of generosity in coalition building.

She notes that coalitions are not built on a transactional basis, but on the recognition that across unions and social justice movements, there are common struggles. As the former Secretary-Treasurer for UNITE HERE, Mills said she “knows what the Union can and cannot do,” and committed to doubling spending spent on organizing, as well as redoubling efforts to fight MAGA fascism in key battleground states.

In 2020, UNITE HERE sent union members to battleground states, including Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, and Michigan, playing a key role in the united front to dump Trump. UNITE HERE members are now preparing to do it again in 2024.

In addition to sharing their own accomplishments, the Connecticut group was inspired by the victories of the labor movement across the country. Delegates from Los Angeles celebrated the victories they won for hotel workers across the city as the result of months of striking, including a $5 raise in the first year, $35 an hour for room attendants, daily room cleanings, and the Juneteenth holiday off.

The bosses tried everything to break the strike, including hiring poor and often homeless gig workers and refugees to work during walkouts, but upon seeing the picket line, many of these workers joined the strike. The union won permanent work positions for all of them. The message was clear: when we fight together, we win together.

State Senator representing Los Angeles, María Elena Durazo, attended the convention as a union member and former leader of UNITE HERE and noted the expanding diversity of the union. “The union looks like the United Nations,” she remarked.

Durazo came into the labor movement as the daughter of farmworkers in California, who had immigrated from Mexico. She spoke about how the union is increasing the breadth of its struggles, fighting for language justice for hotel housekeepers who often do not speak English well, and bringing forth women leaders within its ranks.

In Chicago and Philadelphia, union workers highlighted their fight for fair treatment at work as well as at home. Food service workers, the majority of whom are women of color, are tasked with feeding the community’s children at work, yet they and their own children are often insecure at home.

UNITE HERE has not only fought for life-changing increases in wages but also funds for union members threatened with eviction and facing unfair treatment by landlords. In Hawaii, workers resisted the rising costs of living threatening to push them out of their communities, and won huge gains for hospitality workers.

As the Connecticut group’s bus departed, New Haven Rising Director Rev. Scott Marks delivered a call to action to bring the spirit of the convention back to New Haven. He thanked all of the coalition members, who returned to New Haven ready to keep fighting.

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Renee Kraemer
Renee Kraemer

Renee Kraemer writes from Connecticut.