The real benefits of union membership

The real benefits of union membership

By Nely Reinante – Housekeeper, Hilton Hawaiian Village

Are you interested in writing for UNITE HERE Local 5? We provide writing training. Contact Paola Rodelas.

“The workers united will never be defeated! Fair is fair, we want our share!” These were the lines that my six-year-old daughter loved to chant when the UNITE HERE Local 5 members took to the streets in the historic Marriott/Kyo-ya strike in 2018.

I took the graveyard strike shift so I could take care of my daughter in the morning before school and at night, before I’d go to the strike at 10:30pm. During the day, we would visit the homes of non-union hotel workers.

I lost hope at times, but the strikers were my motivation, and they gave me strength to go on. Finally, after 51 long days, the members received their four-year union contract because of the workers’ power!

I worked at a non-union hotel from July 2010 to March 2017, and remained on-call until March 2020.While working there, my sister-in-law would always praise the union. She was so persistent: “The union has better benefits.” That was all I knew. I took risk by applying to a giant unionized hotel, the Hilton Hawaiian Village, in the last week of December 2016. One week after, my sister-in-law passed away.

My family and I lived with my sister-in-law for eight years because my husband and I were earning just above the minimum wage. As such, we struggled financially and we couldn’t afford to rent our own place. All of that changed when I received my full pay rate after my probationary period at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

At first, I didn’t know what a union hotel meant; I thought it was just about better benefits. I wasn’t able to see the bigger picture. That was until our union organizer, Lydia Agustin, approached me and persistently convinced me to be a group leader. I didn’t know that our union contract was about to expire at that time. I didn’t know that we, as workers, have the power to decide what is best for us. I didn’t know back then that together, we have the voice to stand up against our bosses if they cross the line.

I was so touched and moved that the past union leaders fought very hard for the benefits we enjoy, including good wages, free medical coverage, a pension, training and educational opportunities, and much more.

I didn’t know back then that we need to protect all we have and that we must continue to fight for it. We always need to step up and speak up so that we can be heard!

Eventually, I became a committee leader. I took a leave of absence with the hotel for six months to work at the union office to help organize workers. I went out from my shell and tried to push myself to my limit. Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine doing the organizing work that I am doing today.

Though all of this brought me out of my comfort zone, I went on different trainings and became fully immersed in the work. I became acquainted with the smartest, strongest, and most dignified union leaders, and I took such pride in my position. The people I met were such an inspiration!

I never felt empowered when I was at a non-union hotel. In fact, I wasn’t even able to respond to my boss praising my work because I was scared to talk to him. The painful part was when he passed away and I never had the chance to thank him.

In a union hotel, there are many chances for improvements in the workplace and out in the community. Being trained as a spokesperson, I was invited to represent the workers to the media. Local 5 referred me to an online class on Comprehensive Overview of Immigration Law by CLINIC to help other immigrants, including Local 5 members, apply for citizenship and other immigration services.

After, I volunteered as an interpreter at The Legal Clinic, a nonprofit that serves the immigrant community in Hawaii. It was a pleasure to help my colleagues and friends who are struggling to have a better life here in America.

I worked with Hawaii’s immigration attorneys and become a community navigator during the pandemic, reaching out to the community about COVID relief and giving them hope amidst the uncertainties of life. I found it especially rewarding when we helped vulnerable and frustrated workers to connect to unemployment services, knowing the unbearable feelings people experience when they don’t have a job.

I found myself rising up amidst very difficult times, despite my daughter’s health concerns. I found it truly meaningful to do noble work helping my community. The experience has brought me to new heights.

To some, these may seem like little things. But for me, it fills me with pride! The organizing work has made a huge impact in my life by boosting my self-esteem and self-confidence. I learned that I can do whatever I want when it comes to standing for the truth and fighting for the best interests for my workplace, my family, and my community.

When workers unite, they will never be divided. These are the most powerful benefits of being a union member: SOLIDARITY and POWER!

Are you interested in writing for UNITE HERE Local 5? We provide writing training. Contact Paola Rodelas.