“Class-consciousness is about connecting the dots”: An Interview with Izzy Alvaran of UNITE HERE Local 2

A few weeks ago I traveled to San Francisco to present a paper and participate in a panel at the National Communication Association (NCA) Conference, but never actually went inside the conference hotel. You see, NCA, for the second time in three years, hosted it’s conference at a labor-disputed hotel; this year, it was the San Francisco Hilton. As we did two years ago, a group of pro-labor academics built a “shadow” conference at alternate hotels to ensure that we could still gather in academic community without having to cross a picket-line. In addition to enjoying some great presentations and catching up with the various academic friends I’ve made who are scattered throughout the country, I also took time to interview some queer labor leaders from SEIU and UNITE HERE who agreed to talk to me about the relationship between the queer community and the labor community.

Izzy Alvaran is the community outreach organizer for UNITE HERE Local 2. Izzy discussed the importance of solidarity organizing, creating understandings of the intersections of oppression, and how theory can translate to struggle.

Raechel: Can you tell me what you do at UNITE HERE?

Izzy: I’m currently the community outreach organizer for UNITE HERE Local 2, the hotel and restaurant workers union in SF, and we’re part of the UNITE HERE International Union which is in Canada and the US. I’m also an active member of Pride at Work, SF Chapter, and my position there is to represent Pride At Work with the San Francisco Labor Council and also I’m on the board here.

Raechel: And how did you get involved with all this stuff?

Izzy: I’m primarily a strong supporter of worker justice and because I consider myself queer, and Pride at Work intersects economic justice and queer advocacy and it’s not just about queer stuff, they also do immigrant rights, and I’m an immigrant so it’s just almost natural for me to active in Pride At Work, and because I’m a community outreach organizer for the local my job is to work with community organization, and in a queer town like San Francisco any campaigns here that would fly, you need the support of the queer community.

Raechel: You point to the intersections of immigrant status, race, sexuality and labor. How do you frame that to make it seem important to the labor community? How have these [queer-focused] campaigns been successfully integrated?

Izzy: The traditional notions of organizing using self-interest as the main model for a lot of organizing groups, looking at just that, it’s at the self-interest of the labor movement to be investing in its alliances, specifically with the queer community in SF. But I do believe we need to move beyond self-interest and into solidarity. Solidarity is when even if it doesn’t impact you directly or maybe remotely, you see this as your contribution to building a movement. For the labor movement to succeed it has to go beyond getting it’s contracts. We need to go beyond the notion of being a business union. And UNITE HERE has really been moving forward as being part of the social justice movement. And being in solidarity with other groups that are oppressed is very, very important. That’s just on the question of self-interest vs. movement building. Another thing is that there’s an overlap of constituencies. Of course the union is made of a lot of members, there are 12,000 members in SF, and it’s very important for the union to recognize that a lot of its members are women, immigrants—the majority of members are people of color—and we don’t ask them for their status but we do assist them with getting citizenship or getting their family over here. And so we’re very active in immigrant rights. And with queer rights—and when I say queer I don’t just mean to refer to issues that are insular to the immediate LGBTQ community—when I say politically queer, it means dealing with people who are in the margins, people who are flowing in and out of the in between spaces, and these are people who are workers; workers who are not gay fall into that. We do of course have gay members in this union and we want to make sure that the whole union membership know that we support queer rights. We march as a union in Pride and all that, but we still need more education, I believe.

In our contracts we show that by having benefits for those who are partnered, so if you file for domestic partnership, the union will recognize that and help you get domestic partner benefits as the union member. And way back in the day when the AIDS epidemic was raging in San Francisco, long before other unions stood in support of the gay community, we instituted an AIDS fund; that’s still going on. This helps our members who are afflicted with the HIV/AIDS virus. Ya know, additional money on top of their health care, to help with alternative medicine or rent or whatever. So, it is very important for the labor movement to see this intersection. It cannot be insular, you have to invest in the community. So, one, as I said, it has to evolve from self-interest to solidarity, movement building, that’s very important. And two, to recognize that there is an overlap in constituency and it’s only natural for the union to help its own members who are in these spaces of being immigrants, or being queer, of just being in the margins. So that’s what we do.

Raechel: Can you think of examples where you’ve had challenges either within the union where you saw resistance toward queer inclusivity, or resistance from the queer community to the labor movement?

Izzy: Within the union movement, there are of course still people that are conservative. It’s hard to do that in SF, but you can probably object or not like it, but you have to keep it to yourself. And I know people that might have religious and cultural issues about it, both within the union and the wider labor movement. There are definitely a lot of, ya know, older white men who are very conservative, often in the building trades, but it’s funny because the building trades—at least the plumbers—supported an openly transgender candidate a few years ago. But the thing is, being gay doesn’t mean that you’re progressive. So this person is actually pro-cops and she wasn’t even endorsed by the SF Labor Movement as a whole, just by one segment; she wasn’t the most progressive candidate. I haven’t seen her in a picket line. It just so happened she was a famous transgender person who served with the police commission and all that.

So there is resistance, and this is coming at, I guess, just old school, very macho, workplace environment, even if the SF Labor Council is very diverse, the craft unions are still dominated by men, and there’s, ya know, a lot of the testosterone flowing and machismo. But it’s also religion and culture. Within our members, the majority are Chinese and it’s not something culturally acceptable. Especially in some cultures where you’re expected to bear child, which is not gonna happen in most gay relationships unless you use scientific methods to get pregnant or adopt a child.

Raechel: And how do you overcome that resistance?

Izzy: There has to be education. There’s Harvey Milk Club, Pride At Work, we’re all spearheading this, but the unions really have to have that political education on their own.

Raechel: How do you envision that? Is that just a matter of personal outreach in terms of conversation? Because as an educator, I really believe in the liberatory potential of teaching and learning, but I’m not always sure how that translates outside of the classroom.

Izzy: I say it should be institutionalized. At least here at Local 2, our union believes in ground-up organizing. And that means that we engage our members, we have worker committees in every restaurant, every hotel, every union shop. We do have shop-stewards, but we have a larger committee of members who turn out people to actions, who engage people because this is their union, the are the union. And whenever we have these big meetings with over 300 top rank-and-file leaders, and our executive board is made of rank-and-file leaders, they make the executive decision…My vision is that we can devote 30 minutes of that meeting time for the leadership to talk about current issues. Or something they can take to their workplaces; ya know, like talking circles inside the hotel.

Also, the local is very supportive of the democratic party, which I really resent, but if we are supportive of the electoral process, for members to make a really good decision on election day on certain issues, if you build up that base of knowledge, and they know why they’re voting for that person, because that person is for immigrant rights or whatever else, and if they exactly know what that means for them and for the union. If they’re voting for a candidate who is very strong on queer rights because they know what that means…It takes a lot of connecting for some people…Ya know, some of these people probably haven’t been through college, but they’re workers and as a worker I trust their class-consciousness to come up, but that needs to be sharpened. Class-consciousness means that you can actually connect the dots and see what is the class-point in our struggle here. Where does community support come in? Why is it important to fight for immigrant rights, why is it important to fight for queer rights? Even if they’re straight. So that takes a lot of political education, so the union really has to decide a curriculum for that. Have it so that it’s institutional where we schedule trainings, cause part of the contract that the union has with the hotel corporation is that the worker leaders can take time off for union meetings for up to two-hours, four times a year. If we could ask them for educational leaves, where members could come to the local once a month or every other month, once a quarter, and stay here for half a day, paid leave, so they get that political education. We could then invite members of the community to come in, tell them what’s happening on this front or that front, so they get to see what’s important.

Also creative actions need to be done. Because it’s part of education, it’s more visual. An example would be that we’ve had the support of the ANSWER coalition, and when they had a big anti-war march last year we met with them, and they asked if they could march by one of the boycotted hotels, which they did. The biggest boycotted hotel in SF is the Hilton, so we had them march past that hotel on our way to the big rally. The march stopped there and we had a picket line going, so some of the people walked the picket line, and some of the people who were chanting anti-war slogans started chanting “Boycott Hilton” and all that. Our idea was that a lot of our members don’t see the connection that the reason why there is no money for health care and education for their kids…they work for a private company, but they send their kids to public school. But they need to know the reason why there is no resources at home is because the dollars shift to the war effort. And as far as the new anti-war movement, especially some of the new, younger, anarchist groups, some of them don’t see that connection, they don’t have that union-consciousness, it’s all about the war.  But when they see that there is actually a connection, so we do that. And recently we had a rally to commemorate the Afghan war, and after the rally we went back to the hotel and had another picket there. So that’s something visual, creative actions.

And to also counter resistance of a lot of members to the gay community, we do show up in support of them. And we supported an action—you’ve probably seen the Youtube video of the Lady Gaga [flashmob in the San Diego]—you know, that wasn’t the union officially, so we coordinated with Pride At Work and One Struggle, One Fight—which is the group that formed in the aftermath of our defeat in Prop 8, when a lot of the organizers said you know we really need to reach out to other sectors in the community and tie up marriage equality to general equality at the workplace—so we worked with them, Pride At Work worked with them, and we also got the Brass Liberation Orchestra involved. But officially the union cannot be part of it, legally, because we don’t want them, in the middle of our contract fight, to say “oh the union is instigating a rogue action,” because they can legally bracket off our picket lines to like five feet if they want to. So I was outside the hotel, and I made sure that there were no staff inside, and I made sure we didn’t know anything about this and I was the only person who knew, and whenever they planned it, I would step out of the room, and make sure I didn’t know the details. No one else in the union leadership knew about it until it happened. So actions like that show to our members—because after it happened, field representatives would go to the hotel and show our members the youtube video—so we believe it kind of changes their thinking that these are people that I don’t like, that I think are morally reprehensible, but they’re out there! And I was surprised because the second hotel—after they snuck into the Westin—they went to the Manchester Grand Hyatt and they walked from there, did their reprise and union square and marched to do another picket at the Hyatt, who had marked themselves as gay-friendly, but of course they’re not, and we’re saying that “if you’re not worker-friendly, you’re not gay-friendly.” So they marched there, did a picket outside, and some of them were in drag, and I don’t know what happened, but they went inside, and some of them were telling me that the doormen actually opened the door for them. And they wanted us to go in. And some of them heard [the doormen] say “Well, they’re fighting for our contract.” So, ya know, that kind of solidarity, that’s seen, is very important.

Raechel: Could you talk a bit about how Sleep With the Right People officially got started?

Izzy: I don’t know how it got started, but ya know Cleve Jones works for our union and I’m pretty sure we could get you hooked up with Cleve if you need to. I’ll just send an email and you can connect. Because he heads that program.

Raechel: That’d be awesome, thanks. You’ve covered so many great things, this is so helpful.

Izzy: Well, I just did a similar project, I just finished my doctor of ministry degree at Berkely this past summer. And my project was about the same sort of ‘organizing beyond self-interest.’ But more on the faith community, so I also work with the interfaith community. It’s kind of easier to work with them, because it’s sort of moral support for the oppressed, that kind of resonates with them. Although we do have problems because some of our member leadership is not very faith-based, but they see the importance of it. The reason I got into this work is because I was an IWJ (Interfaith Worker Justice) intern and I got hired here immediately after.

Raechel: Do you have any good stories or examples of times that you really broke through to someone where you saw someone sort of have that epiphany about the interconnection of oppression?

Izzy: There’s no dramatic story that I can think of, because some of them are just passing comments from workers who, after a big action, after seeing all the banners of groups that are out there supporting them, they feel like “oh there’s so many people here that actually support us.” But it’s harder for me because I work more with the community than with workers, so I don’t see that as much. The community loves this local because there’s a history of activism with the local.

Raechel: This was really awesome, you said so many important things, so thank you.

Izzy: Well, yeah I took some queer theory courses in college, so…

Raechel: Yeah, you were definitely ‘speaking the language’…but in a good way! In a practical way! You grounded it. Specifically when you were talking about a political queer identity of folks who live in the margins. That’s something I resonate with a lot.

Izzy: Right, because you don’t have to be….

Raechel: in a same-sex relationship…

Izzy: Exactly, you don’t have to be gay to see that. We do have members who identify as queer because of their politics who aren’t necessarily gay. But in academia it’s a rising discipline, but that is something that has to be translated to the grassroots.

Raechel: Absolutely, that’s something I feel is so important. Because I really have been very moved by a lot of queer theory but of course the criticism of it is that it’s way up here. ::puts hand above head to imply non-grounded theory::

Izzy: It is still way up there, but the thing is that the connection theoretically happens in academia, but should be seen happening in struggle. Because to me, apart from struggle, theory is dead. You know I had a class and we were talking on Marx, and I identify as a socialist and was a part of the revolutionary party in the Philippines, and the professor said “Let’s stop talking about the Marxists and focus on Marx.” And I said, I think that’s kind of not right because how can you focus on Marx and his theories if you don’t see how the Marxists are using it on the ground. So it’s the same thing, if you talk about queer theory or queer politics, but don’t talk to people who are actually doing things with it—and I’m glad you’re doing that for this paper—then you don’t see those connections on the ground. And it also highlights the disconnect of like…that transgender candidate I talked about, ya know, she’s “queer” but necessarily queer [politically].

Raechel: Yeah, exactly. That reminds me of a book I just finished reading by Sherry Wolf called Sexuality and Socialism. Haymarket Books published it, have you read it? It basically covers a lot of stuff on this same theme, and tries to challenge that Marxism is necessarily homophobic.

Izzy: I haven’t read it, but ya know the Revolutionary Party in the Philippines, they didn’t publically accept homosexuality—that’s what they call it—until very recently. And I really feel like the Harvey Milk Club and Pride at Work are challenging those things. But I think the union movement probably…well, we need a Workers Party. I’m a member of the worker’s party in the Philippines, and although I consider electoral politics pretty much bourgeois, but then again when you’re in the midst of struggle you have to use the tools that are laid against you and wield it to your advantage. And use it as a platform for social change, coming from a different angel. And even it’s a bourgeois institution, propaganda is an important tool. You have to be creative. So even the use of technology, or flash mobs, visuals, street theater.

Raechel: Exactly. And even though none of those things necessarily have queer origins, we’ve obviously seen those tactics appropriated by ACT UP and other queer groups that do more militant direct action, or groups that do creative guerilla theater.

Izzy: Yeah, and you know Pride at Work is doing a 2011 calendar. We just had our first photo shoot yesterday. It’s part of our fundraising, some of us dress up in drag, I brought my little dog. And we staged these scenes, like, we had a “Smashing Capitalism” scene, just really cool stuff.

Raechel: That’s very cool, I will have to order one of those for sure! I also just remembered something else about coalitions near here, in Oakland, that the there was a port strike in conjunction with the Oscar Grant trial. That’s a pretty amazing act of solidarity.

Izzy: That the ILWU is doing. Yes, that is amazing. The ILWU is really good about doing stuff like that and that’s probably something like one place we want to go to. And issues of race are definitely important for unions to address too, of course.

Raechel: All the intersections, of course. Thank you so much for talking with me.

Izzy: Thank you, keep in touch.

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One thought on ““Class-consciousness is about connecting the dots”: An Interview with Izzy Alvaran of UNITE HERE Local 2

  1. Such wonderful work, and such an interesting interview. You are so to be commended my friend on your excellent navigation of academia alongside some really important thoughts about the world outside of academia.

    This was a pleasure to read, and all the more reason I think you’re a terrific scholar and activist! 🙂

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