Union leader for UNITE-HERE: Rev. Michael Roberts

By Ray Feliciano (Interview May 8, 2008)

Q: We’re here with Rev. Michael Roberts, the Albany District Director of UNITE-HERE, which looking up online, UNITE-HERE is an acronym that stands for Union of Needle trades, Industrial and Textile Employees.

“It used to be. It isn’t anymore since post-merger. So, it’s just UNITE-HERE now. Both of them were acronyms, but they’re not any longer. It’s just UNITE-HERE. Makes the world a lot simpler.”

Q: Does it still take care of the same constituencies. For example, needle trades and textiles. I didn’t see that on the list of groups that you cover. Are those jobs that we don’t have anymore in this country?

“Well, as you know, we’re losing them, and have lost them over the last couple of decades at huge rates. My region in particular, the Rochester region, which is actually really all of upstate New York has much, if not all of what needle trades workers there are left in the area. But there’s just not a lot left anymore. There’s a bit of a cross-over to the industrial laundries, which we include as textile workers. That, of course, can’t go anywhere. They’re the people who launder the floor mats or uniforms and fix uniforms, repair uniforms. That kind of stuff. That business you can’t really offshore. And we represent the industrial laundry workers also.”

UNITE-HERE union leader Rev. Michael Roberts
Albany District Director for UNITE-HERE,
union leader Rev. Michael Roberts meets with
TIC publisher, Ray Feliciano.
(photos: Nancy Muldoon)

Q: What is the union’s position on outsourcing?

“Well, outsourcing is a really problem. We’ve got people living in desperate poverty in other nations because these jobs pay so poorly. And we’ve got our own citizenship living in some cases poverty but certainly with poor health care, because these kinds of well-paying jobs have just evaporated, so these trade agreements have been a complete disaster in our opinion.”

Q: What is the purpose of a union?

“Well, unions basically are groups of workers at a particular site or shop, who band together to create their own association, a right that’s guaranteed by the Constitution, and to collectively bargain. They band together in order to collectively bargain with their employer. They pay dues, which supports staff people like me who help them with the negations and also enforce their contract. So, if any kinds of injustices are committed on the job that are prohibited by the contract, people like me go in and file grievances, and more often than that actually, the member themselves will start the grievance process. They will file grievances. The union stewards will file grievances on behalf of their coworkers, and then if it reaches a high enough level, someone will, a staff member like me, will go in and pick it up from there, and take it to resolution. It is also for banding together for political purposes. For instance, lobbying potentially against trade agreements, but certainly also, IDA reform. It’s a big deal.”

Q: IDA?

“Industrial Development Agencies are these generally county agencies that are put together to figure out how to encourage business in particular counties. And they have a real history in New York of giving away an awful lot of tax money to employers who then don’t respect the rights of their employees, which is a real problem for us. So, that’s just another kind of thing that we lobby for. Also my union in particular is pretty tight with the Pride Agenda, so we’re active in lobbying for Gay and Lesbian rights.”

Q: You had mentioned that it’s a band of workers gathering together. However, is it optional for workers? Isn’t it true that once there’s a union in a shop, the workers have to become union members?

“In some states it’s true. In New York, that’s true. So, for instance, when a union is forming there is some kind of representational process, whether that’s a national labor relations board election or whether or not it could be a community election, or it could be card check process, which is just people signing a union card saying, ‘I want to be represented by the union.’ Generally, one of those three means will be used to determine whether or not a majority of them want a union. Now if they do, in New York state, then everybody who would be appropriate for the bargaining unit is in the bargaining unit, whether or not they voted yes or no. The states for which that’s not true are generally the southern states, which are absolutely murderous on unions. The problem being they will pay the non-union workers, as much or more than the union workers, even though the union workers and their contract fights are what gave everybody the wages in the first place, which is a serious disincentive to participating in the union and paying the dues, but it’s governed by state law.”

Q: Can you explain the difference between and Open Shop and a Closed Shop?

“That is the difference between an Open Shop and a Closed Shop. So, these southern states that are called the Right-to-Work states have what we call Open Shops, meaning once the union is established, still the membership don’t have to be members, and they don’t have to pay dues. Closed Shops are shops in states like New York where once it’s established that there’s a union in there and the union is recognized, everybody that’s appropriate for the unit is in.”

Q: And if you could just explain again in your own words why that makes sense to unions. That in a closed shop, if you’ve done the negotiating it’s to benefit all the workers?

“Yeah, the reason it’s disabling to the workers union if not everybody is in, because if they aren’t in then, number one, that collective isn’t absolute, and number two, bosses are perfectly able to incentivize people away from the union, away from paying dues, by granting them wages or benefits that they’re not giving the union workers, even though the union workers are responsible for creating the floor for wages anyway. Their contracts set what the insurance payments will be, what the pension will be, what the wages will be. And in order to break the union, all they have to do is to make it more attractive to stay out of the union, dry the union up, and then force wages or benefits of any kind back to whatever levels they feel like. There will be no protection.”

Q: What is the union’s position on undocumented workers?

“Our union’s position on undocumented workers is absolutely clear. We lobby on their behalf on a regular basis. Lobby for immigration rights in general on a regular basis. The United States needs this labor. It uses this labor. But at this point, in an exploitative manner. It’s OK to use this labor. The United States needs this labor, but they need to be paying fair wages, and they need benefits. They need protection under the law. It’s entirely exploitative to use a workforce like this. It’s as close to slavery as you can come while still having any kind of money change hands.”

Q: Would you say that unions are still as powerful as they were in their ‘hayday’?

“No. Clearly not. We had 36% some odd percent of the workforce, and now we’re down to something in the neighborhood of 12%. That makes a big difference. However, we’re disproportionately powerful, because union members vote at disproportionate rates. They’re very politically active compared to the kind of run of the mill citizenship, and although I can’t remember the numbers from last time out during our presidential election, they vote disproportionately Democratic.”

Q: When you said 36% down to 12%, for clarification, are those national numbers?

“Those are national numbers, yeah. The Albany area it pretty highly organized. It’s certainly above national averages.”

Q: What would you say is the most common grievance you hear from workers? And how are grievances addressed?

“Well, there are forms of, uh…just, you name it. I don’t think that there is a common profile. I mean people get fired for no good reason. People get their schedules sometimes maliciously rearranged just to make life difficult for no good reason. People have their jobs changed from one job to another. Their working conditions changed without any kind of consultation with the workers. Now, contracts cut down on this stuff quite a bit. It still happens though, so I mean this kind of stuff is the basis of most grievances.”

Q: You mentioned contracts and of course, that brings my mind back to the Writer’s Strike. Striking seems to be the nuclear option for unions. Obviously you’re weighing your workers not receiving any paycheck at all versus making a stand. How do you go about weighing that breaking point where it’s gotten to that level where you feel there is no option but to strike?

“Well, the top piece of that, the most important piece of that is whether or not the workers feel they’ve got a definable issue that is so important to them that it’s worth it, because they’re going to experience a lot of pain. It’s not easy to strike. Things happen during strikes. And people lose money during strikes. The first, centerpiece of that whole thing needs to absolutely be, A) You got some kind of problem that’s a problem that must be fix, not a problem that can be lived with. And B) You’ve got the fortitude to see it through. Those are the top questions. If the answer isn’t ‘Yes’ to both those things, then it’s just not worth doing. Whether or not strikes are good things or bad things from my perspective depends on the context. I mean greed exists. It’s a real force in the world. And without collective action, without people standing together, there is no check to that greed in the workplace. I mean the employers hold all the capital. Their form of power is capital. Workers don’t have the capital. Their form of power is literally their bodies, or people power. It’s capital power vs. people power. And that capital power is deployed out there alive and well and at work every single day, and there are times when that people power has to stand up and say, ‘Enough. That we were not designed like cogs in a wheel to increase your capital. We’re human beings. We demand and deserve a fair share, and it’s time for you to recognize that.’”

Q: In the event of a strike, does the union try to help its workers get by on those lean months, or are they pretty much on their own at that point?

“Yeah. There’s generally strike funds. And I would you know, certainly be active in trying to solicit food from various religious organizations or whoever is out there. Try to help people figure out alternative ways to handle bills. It’s probably, maybe you’re going to get to this, it probably important to say that strikes happen very infrequently. I’ve never led a strike. I’ve participated in them, but I’ve never led a strike in my career. It’s certainly not the preferred way of going about things. I mean, in general, with reasonable employers, the goal is for both sides to prosper. I enter all situations that way. I really would prefer for both sides to prosper. I don’t want my companies going out of business. But on the other hand, employees deserve their fair share.”

Q: I had found this quote from you while doing my research. You were saying “Our obligations to our members entail obligations to their employers. In this kind of industry, in manufacturing in general, you've got to be able to work creatively and cooperatively with these employers or we'll all lose — we won't be able to keep these jobs in the United States.” How do unions go about balancing getting the best deal for their workers versus being equitable with the companies they’re serving?

“When you got a responsible employer who wants to do the right thing, which in my view is, succeed in business, and make sure the employees get their fair share of the profit, when you’ve got an employer behaving like that, it’s really... I have a responsibility to my members, to help that person succeed. His or her goals are my goals also. So, we can certainly lobby to help… that quote was in the context of the manufacturing sector. We can certainly lobby to help with the kinds of tax breaks and incentives that governments can hand out, whether it’s at the state level, at the county level, or the city level, to help them succeed. And our lobbying to create global labor law and environmental law is also in the big picture an attempt to help out these little business people in the United States.”

Q: In many contracts it states that workers are not allowed to walk out or strike. How is this possible?

“They’re part of No-Strike; No Lockout clauses. So a single clause covers both things. The agreement is that during the life of the contract the workers won’t strike, and management won’t lock them out. So it’s kind of a quid pro quo agreement. It goes back to early twentieth century that began to be normal in contracts. A [inaudible] back in the day, and they were very aggressive union activists prevalent in the early twentieth century, where quite against that kind of stuff, as they were against arbitration. They didn’t want any kind of arrangement that curtailed the power of the workers, or curtailed the responsibility of the workers to fight for themselves. So, for instance the No-Strike; No Lockout clause curtails the ability of workers to strike. It ends their ability to strike during contracts. Strikes only happen between contracts when you come to a complete impasse. But we now also have arbitration clauses, which govern grievances that can’t be settled. If the union and the employer have a grievance going on, and they take through the various steps that are outlined in the contract, and no settlement can be reached, we go to a third party, an arbitrator who decides the case for us. Well, that’s also a relatively new arrangement. Back in the day, the workers would have solved that themselves by kind of banding together and doing whatever they felt like they needed to do. Certainly walking off the job was one of those kinds of things, or a strike would be one of those kinds of things. But much has changed since then.”

Q: Health insurance, I would image, is a growing concern for unions representing their workers. Is this one of the larger problems facing unions when negotiating these contracts since obviously health insurance costs keep going up and up for the employers. Is this one of the bigger sticking points?

“Yeah. It’s huge. It’s the top issue in all negotiations these days. It’s the one issue without which you can’t get an entire settlement. It’s probably the biggest piece of the economic pie anywhere. And it’s a real problem. We need a national solution. And again, in our union, particularly in the hotel sector, we’ve done quite well with that. We have 100% coverage, or 100% employer paid insurance for all of the upper echelon hotels with the exception of one which is new and having financial trouble, but that’s the area standard for us in the Capital District area.”

Q: Sometimes you hear about contract negotiations where they negotiate or reduce pensions or stuff like that. Doesn’t that seem almost unfair to negotiate away something that someone worked for, figuring they were going to retire and then have this? Something they’ve already done their part for?

“Sure. Whether or not it’s unfair, this is not happening in my union. We’re by and large a… our organizing these days is directed to the service sector, its hotels, its gaming, it’s also industrial laundries, restaurant work, that kind of stuff. What you’re talking about, is for the most part, is manufacturing. The UAW is probably the biggest one that has faced these kinds of problems. I wouldn’t be critical of them. They’re facing economic hardship on a scale that the rest of us aren’t. Their industry is collapsing. The hotels aren’t collapsing. I wouldn’t criticize them for what they’ve got to do. It’s also true that we’ve got, I don’t know how many generations of families out in Detroit that have been able to put kids through college who no longer have to assemble cars for a living, thanks to the kind of benefits they got out of the UAW. It’s a tough situation.”

Union leader for UNITE-HERE: Rev. Michael Roberts
Union leader for UNITE-HERE: Rev. Michael Roberts

Q: The other day I was passed this flyer from another union that does construction on hotels. How much solidarity is there with other unions?

“There is complete solidarity. If they need us, we’re there. If we need them, they’re with us. People came and helped us, or were willing to help us with a contract struggle we had up in Gideon some time ago. Didn’t end up needing it, but they would have been there. I will certainly be there for them.”

Q: How do you go about recruiting union members, or do you not even need to recruit?

“We don’t recruit union members. The employers hire new employees, who become union members.”

Q: Some people have a negative connotation of unions, and still think back to the Teamsters and corruption. Would you say there is still an image problem with unions regarding corruption?

“Sure. Yeah. No question about it. We are the most scrutinized, federally scrutinized kind of institution that I am aware of these days. However, the perception that there are problems I’m sure is still out there. However, I think though that it gets over emphasized, given every now and again these national polls will be done about the numbers of people who would be members of unions if they could be, which is an interesting question all by itself. There’s a reason why it’s hard to be in a union, which is probably as important as anything we’ve talk about so far. But the responses are, and the rate are in the 60 or more percentage rate of people on a national level who would be part of unions if they could be. The problem with becoming a union member these days is that the National Labor Relations Act, the NLRA, has been entirely co-opted by corporations over the last thirty years or so. So that when we’re holding elections for people to decided whether or not they want to be union members, these companies can harass and intimidate the voters with impunity. And even if they do break the NLRA, there are no penalties. The catch phrase is there are only remedies, there are no penalties under the NLRA. So, literally if we’re holding a union election, and the company knows that you’re a leader, in your workplace. You’re telling other people, ‘Look. We need decent healthcare. We need wages. We need to vote…They can fire you, which is illegal. And it would take months, or years, if we could, to get you your job back. And they wouldn’t owe you any kind of damages whatsoever. They might owe you back-pay, but if you did any other work during that period of time, they would subtract that from your back-pay. So, leaving ethics or morality aside, it’s actually the right thing for corporations to go out and fire the pro-union voters. They won’t get hurt. The worst case scenario for them is they might owe some back wages, but in the meantime, they’ve completely crushed their employees, who are so terrified that they’re not likely to try and organize again, and this happens over and over and over again. And even when employees fight off these kinds of campaigns, and vote ‘Yes’, and get their union, employers increasingly just really refuse to bargain, so it may take as much as eight years just to get the first contract. By which point, who knows if there’s any of the original employees even there.”

Q: What would you say is the most common misconception regarding unions?

“I would say that that image of them being somehow shady. I mean no one is as scrutinized as we Union leader Rev. Michael Roberts are by the federal government. All of our money is watched very carefully. I would say that that’s the number one thing. However, I would also want to add I think we exaggerate that. Most people out in the country understand that it would be in their benefit to be in a union. However, they’re afraid, for various reasons, to even try.”

Q: What are typical union dues?

“Thirty four, five, six bucks a month in this union. It depends on your position. Depends on how much money you make. We are creating also a part-time dues structure so that people that are paid part-time can pay half.”

Q: Approximate how much infrastructure does it take for the union to represent a thousand people? What is the ratio of what you need in order to be effective?

“It’s a good question that there is not a specific answer to. It depends on a number of things like the geography and the nature of the workforce. For instance, if you’ve got a workforce that only works days, and it’s a pretty tight geographic area, that by and large can be serviced by a smaller number of people. If you’re work force works around the clock, and is spread out over a large geographic area, like this local is for instance, it just takes more. However, all unions are running as efficiently as possible these days.”

Q: What else would you like people to know regarding unions?

“I think that one of the most important things that I want people to know when I’m out speaking about this stuff is that unionization isn’t anything other than that original freedom of association that’s guaranteed by the Constitution. And it’s a real shame that we’ve gotten to the point that companies are allowed to frustrate our freedom of association to the degree that they’re able to these days. It’s not some strange ideology that crept in from someplace. It comes to us out of our Constitution. I think that’s really an important piece of what this is all about. I’m also, as you know, ordained, and we haven’t gone down that road. That’s one of the primary pieces that I can really talk about also.”

Q: I wanted to keep it towards the union topic. I’m pretty much wrapping up…Would you say that unions are facing a new kind of laissez-faire capitalism in a way with management? Are we getting back to the times where the power to the corporate side is unbalanced?

“Unquestionably. That’s the problem we’re experiencing with the National Labor Relations Act and the NLRB, the National Labor Relations Board right now. Law is like a living animal. It goes through phases, and it’s really clear at this point that Labor law in the United States is broken. It’s suffering as are the workers that it seeks to protect. These days have been called the ‘Return to the Robber Baron Era’. The planet is kind of the new Wild West. They can go anywhere. I’m told that one of the former presidents of [company name withheld], one of these giant company CEOs was saying that it’s too bad they can’t build factories on barges because you could then move it from Mexico to China to the next county after China starts to catch up. And it would save the building costs.”

Q: Do you think with the way the economy and the trends with gas prices going up and up, do you think we’ll be seeing more from unions in the future? That they’ll grow stronger again?

“I think that they’re probably is a bottoming out point. Or at least I certainly like to hope so. As an organizer, I’ve spent years organizing, I would say the biggest obstacle to organizing that I’ve faced is hopelessness. Not a disbelief that people banding together are stronger than people that don’t band together. That’s pretty obvious and very few people doubt that. But people who are just so beat up, and so scared that they just don’t have any faith in their ability to stand up. Or in other words, hopelessness I think the biggest obstacle I’ve faced. And I do believe that once you press people past a certain point, hopelessness becomes overridden by, I’m not sure what, anger or desperation. They aren’t good things. However, sometimes it’s what’s necessary I think to fuel justice.”

Audio clip

Audio clip from The Informed Constituent May 8, 2008 interview with Rev. Michael Roberts, the Albany District Director of UNITE-HERE.

  • Voice 1 - Ray Feliciano
  • Voice 2 - Rev. Michael Roberts
  • Voice 3 - Nancy Muldoon