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The 99 Percent Takes Office: Lessons From a Rhode Island Special Election

Carmen Castillo. (Photo:

The 99 Percent Takes Office: Lessons From a Rhode Island Special Election

Carmen Castillo. (Photo:

Part of the Series

If labor and other progressive groups are going to rebuild an economy that works for the 99 percent in America, they need to do great organizing in workplaces and communities and they also need to build deep coalitions among themselves. But that's not enough.

They also need to translate their organizing muscle into political power. And that means looking at electoral strategies in a new way.

The progressive victories in this November's elections were inspiring and important, but they were essentially defensive. We fended off Republican attacks in Ohio, Mississippi and Maine, but we need to be winning pro-active campaigns, too. We need to be able to use electoral politics to reinforce our organizing strategies.

We often elect lesser-evil politicians and send them off in the vague hope that they will do the right thing once taking office. But we have seen time and time again, that even when we have friends in elected positions, they often end up holding the grassroots constituencies that got them elected at arm's length. Politicians face huge pressures from corporate interests once in power and, consequently, just having a “D” after their name does not guarantee that they will take tough stands on behalf of working people. We don't need friends in office; we need champions.

Fortunately, activists in Providence, Rhode Island – prominently including the hotel and restaurant workers union (UNITE HERE) – are providing a model for electing officials at the municipal level who will champion the interests of working people. These progressives are creating impressive coalitions, overcoming historic divides between the building trades and other unions and translating organizing strength into a political program that can produce real community benefits.

What's more – in an exciting special election this Tuesday – they succeeded in electing one of their truest champions yet. Carmen Castillo, a hotel housekeeper and a rank-and-file union leader, brought to her campaign the life experience of an immigrant and a single mom, along with the vision of an organizer. She is drawing on the strength of an electoral coalition that has never looked more impressive.

It Takes an Agenda

Providence's city council has long been heavily Democratic and all 15 council members currently in office are Democrats. In this setting, party affiliation is not the main issue. The importance of having true champions in office became clear when activists started thinking big – imagining an economic agenda that could be enacted at the municipal level and would truly benefit working people.

In the past decade, social movement thinkers have recognized that not all policies must be set at the federal level, where Congressional conservatives can easily stonewall progressive measures. By presenting an alternative vision for economic development at the level of states and metropolitan regions, grassroots movements can have an impact on critical issues of housing, transportation, environmental protection and living-wage standards.

UNITE HERE has been actively involved in Rhode Island politics for many years, but in 2010, the union aggressively expanded its volunteer operation to give workers a louder voice in local elections, especially in Providence. They connected their drive with established efforts by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) locals 1199 and 615, the Laborers, and a variety of community groups that had been working to build a core of strong progressives on the city council. In the 2010 elections, five council candidates endorsed by the union prevailed, making up a third of the body.

The point for the union was not just to get friends into office. It was to pass innovative policies that could help working people in the city in a concrete way. A key example of the types of policies they envisioned was a worker retention ordinance, which could help union members keep their jobs when businesses changed hands and reduce the temptation of subcontracting as a way to reduce decent-paying jobs. An initial version of the ordinance passed in 2009, an expanded version passed in 2010 and it has survived initial court challenges. As Chris Cook, a worker at the Westin Hotel in Providence and vice president of UNITE HERE Local 217 explains:

“If a new company comes in the hospitality industry in Providence and purchases an existing business with existing employees, the ordinance says that the new owners can't terminate workers on the spot; they have to give them three months. This is huge. It gives workers a chance to get to know the new boss and maintain their jobs, or it gives them three months to find a new job so they aren't just thrown out on the street.”

The ordinance has since been cited as a precedent in fights in other parts of the country. It is an example of social justice activists figuring out what decisions can be made at the local level that actually impact people's lives – and then leveraging their organizing to produce political gains.

Carmen's Story

UNITE HERE saw that political power at the municipal level could produce real benefits, not only for its members, but also for wider communities of working- and middle-class people. Consequently, the union has sought to further develop its political program by encouraging grassroots leaders within its organization to run for office. When council member Miguel C. Luna – a strong advocate of social justice causes – suddenly died in August, the union decided it needed a champion to replace him. The organization decided to back Carmen Castillo.

“I've known Carmen for 14 years and she's been a true blue fighter for the union on the contract committee, shop steward, executive board member,” says Cook. “She can rally the troops at the drop of a dime. She's hardcore. Of course we are excited to support her.”

Castillo will bring more than just her union experience to the Council. “She isn't a one-sided candidate; she is also a huge part of her community. She knows what it is to pay her mortgage; she knows what it is to try and make ends meet and get the groceries on the table for her children, get them through college. She is concerned that we have clean streets to live in, good homes. As hard as she fights on worker issues; she is going to fight on issues of community.”

In a ward of largely Latinos and people of color, which have had problems with racial profiling and Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, Castillo's Republican opponent, Christian Chirino, espoused Tea Party-like positions and advocated militarizing the border. In contrast, Castillo's story embodies a powerful progressive vision of what our country can be – a vision that is pro-worker, pro-immigrant and pro-American.

“I came from the Dominican Republic almost nineteen years ago with my three little girls and I started working at the Westin Hotel in 1994,” Castillo says. “I came to this country for opportunities for my family. I was looking for a better life. I wanted the opportunity to work to support my family.”

Having a union job allowed her to do that. “I'm a room attendant,” she says. “I'm a single mother. I worked hard to bring my daughters through college. Now, I want to do something for my community to give back for what this country did for me. When my best friend Miguel Luna passed away, I decided to run.”

Tuesday's victory is a testament to her perseverance. “Sometimes we're so tired,” she noted during the campaign. “I am still working in the hotel, I didn't quit my job. When you are working 40 hours a week and working 40 hours on the campaign, it's too much. But I do it because I know that to win we need to work hard.”

A Coalition for Political Success

Ultimately, it wasn't just one union that contributed to this formula for political success. Castillo's campaign drew support from the Laborers, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the Painters, SEIU and the Teachers Union, as well as from the city's Central Labor Council.

The participation of the building trade unions was particularly important. Historically, there has often been a political divide between the building trades and service sector unions. However, in Providence, the modest size of the area has allowed coalitions to form and made close collaboration possible.

As Scott Duhamel, a representative at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and secretary treasurer of the Rhode Island Building Trades and Construction Council, explains: “Rhode Island is a small state, very much of a city-state. There is a lot of collaboration between public and private unions in this state, particularly in these dire times. We're all linked pretty intricately right now in a number of struggles. It's a no brainer.”

Asked about historic divisions, Duhamel cites a new generation of leadership as a key to building stronger coalitions. “There is some new leadership in the building trades and you can easily categorize them as much more progressive than their predecessors,” he says. “Since they assumed leadership there has been a big effort to make sure that different unions are aware of each others' strategies. And it has been very successful.”

For Duhamel, supporting Castillo's victory is a part of the building trades reclaiming a pro-immigrant history and overcoming divides with the community that have formed in past decades. “Our history, we are based on the immigrant experience,” he says. “The early building trades were manned and built by a lot of new immigrants to the United States. But we became a closed club; there's no denying it. History shows it. In the '60s and the '70s, and the '80s … we were thumbing our nose at the inner-city residents, who were once mostly African-American, but have now become Latino and Asian. But someone finally realized this was a big mistake. We haven't connected where we should have been connecting, so around the country there are some groups that have made steps to change.”

In Providence, this push for change connected to the effort to elect champions in city council. As in some other cities, political power allowed building trade unions to pass Community Workforce Agreements, which not only mandate that major construction projects in the city hire union workers, but also that members of local communities – including inner-city communities – be hired. Apprenticeship programs facilitated by these agreements have allowed increasing numbers of people of color to enter the unions.

It is not uncommon for unions to circle the wagons when they are under attack – as they did in Wisconsin and Ohio. But what makes the Rhode Island case special and hopefully groundbreaking, is that labor's unity is being used to win ground. What unity means is that each union does not cut its own deal with an employer or the political establishment, allowing piecemeal, short-term gains to divide the movement. Instead, different members of the coalition must look at the big picture and hold out for agreements that benefit the movement as a whole. It takes some risk and some faith to stand with an ally in demanding additional concessions once your needs have already been met. But it is powerful to see when it happens.

“Successes begets success,” says Duhamel. “All of the politicians, taxpayers, developers want to show that they give back to the community. When it's done right, it's success all around for everyone.”

The Road to Victory

With a broad coalition of unions and community groups signed on, Castillo's campaign became a formidable force. At the municipal level, the limited scale of elections allows grassroots, door-to-door field campaigning to be a key factor in determining which candidates prevail. In the case of Castillo, it proved decisive. In a six-way primary for the Democratic nomination, all candidates vowed to be the friends of working people. But social movements were able to advance a champion who is looking to engage them as a partner in governing.

UNITE HERE's Cook explains, “When Carmen ran in the primary, we had somewhere around 75 workers who put in around 190 three hour shifts of walking the streets, knocking on doors, talking to residents, making phone banking, passing out literature. In the end, we won by 29 votes.”

The very slim margin of victory made the importance of grassroots campaigning undisputable. “If we had won this by 200 or 300 votes,” says Cook, “maybe you could say she would have won anyway. But when it came down to a 29-vote victory, every person out on the doors mattered.”

On Tuesday, Castillo went on to win in the general election with close to 495 votes out of 650 votes. A representative of the 99 percent who is now taking office, she will be bringing her experience as a hotel housekeeper, as an immigrant and as a single mom to the city council. Cook takes a powerful lesson from the experience. “You can't say it can't be done,” he says. “I encourage people to step up, stand up and be counted and run. We certainly need more workers, more people who know what our struggle is to be elected. And it can be done.”

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