Gwen Mills formally takes the helm as Unite HERE President
Gwen Mills is the first ever woman president of Unite HERE.

NEW YORK—Unite HERE convention delegates formally elected longtime New Haven, Conn., activist and leader Gwen Mills as the union’s new president. She promptly pledged to double its organizing and deepen its already large political involvement.

Mills is the first woman to lead the union, successor to three famous unions: The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers, the International Ladies Garment Workers, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees. Mills took over the job on an acting basis when D. Taylor retired earlier this year

“We don’t shy away from taking on powerful corporate interests, and we don’t back down from a fight,” Mills told the delegates in her inaugural address. “Now is the time to do even more to support workers who want a union. Unite HERE members enjoy a standard millions of other hospitality workers in the U.S. and Canada don’t yet have.

“Our union has shown incredible resilience and strength through the pandemic and set new standards for jobs in our industries. We proved that hospitality jobs can be good union jobs.

“We’re ready to take bold action to ensure that all industry workers get the respect, wages, and working conditions they deserve.

Together, Taylor and Mills, then Secretary-Treasurer, led Unite HERE during one of the toughest times any union in U.S. history has ever faced: The coronavirus pandemic. The modern-day plague literally shut down all the industries—notably hotels, casinos, and arenas—where her union’s 275,000 members work. At one point, joblessness among Unite HERE members topped 90%.

But the two leaders drew on union resourcefulness and reserves and found work for their members, notably in political campaigns. Unite HERE hired thousands of its out-of-work members to walk the streets, leaflet voters, run phone banks, take political soundings, and encourage people to cast ballots, especially mail-in ballots, during the 2020 election campaign.

Their efforts were especially effective in key swing states such as Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and especially Pennsylvania and Georgia. In Pennsylvania, Unite HERE members, most of them women of color, were able to reach voters other canvassers could not, notably in center city Philadelphia.

Other Unite HERE canvassers helped propel Democratic nominee Joe Biden to his 11,779-vote win in the key swing state of Georgia. Then thousands of them returned after the November balloting to continue canvassing and talking with voters before the election runoffs that sent Democrats Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock to Senate seats on Jan. 5, 2021. The next day, Donald Trump demanded, monitored, and directed the U.S. Capitol invasion, insurrection, and attempted coup d’etat.

Gave the Senate a tie

The Georgian Democratic victors gave the Senate a 50-50 tie which Biden’s vice president, Kamala Harris, broke a record 33 times in just two years to enact key legislation, much of it aiding workers.

The political emphasis will continue, Mills promised. So will the organizing, a hallmark of the Taylor-Mills leadership. Mills, who started her Unite HERE career as a community organizer in New Haven, plans to double the union’s organizing budget.

And Unite HERE will “ramp up political organizing programs in key battleground states like Nevada, Arizona, and Pennsylvania, and launch new programs in Ohio and Michigan,” she said. As in 2020 and 2022—when Unite HERE canvassers discovered in Philadelphia that voters told them of the danger of Donald Trump trashing the U.S. Constitution—the union will send out thousands of its members onto the hustings.

They’ll include housekeepers, cooks, dishwashers, and concessions workers “who have fought and won in their workplaces and communities,” Mills said.

“They take the skills they learned organizing their coworkers to turn out voters to elect officials who will fight for workers and support their ability to organize and support legislation that improves jobs in the hospitality industry.”

The new organizing will have several objectives. One is to grow the union in hotels, casinos, institutional food service, and emerging hospitality industries. Those sectors have a combined 14 million non-union workers. Organizing them, Mills said, will empower them “and provide a platform for women and people of color to lead.”

Another objective is to prepare for what Mills called “an historic showdown in the hotel industry, where room rates are the highest in history, but workers are struggling to support their families and the industry cuts jobs and guest services.”

The union represents 40,000 hotel workers in 22 markets, who “are ready to take on major brands like Hilton, Marriott, and Hyatt to demand respect for their work through increased wages and a reversal of staffing cuts.”

Both AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler and Mills’s hometown congresswoman, Connecticut political heavyweight Rep. Rosa DeLauro, also of New Haven, lauded her election to Unite HERE’s top job.

“I can think of no one more deserving to take the reins of leadership during this pivotal time for the national labor movement,” said DeLauro. “Gwen and I have stood side by side in countless fights for workers, from defending local organizing efforts like Local 33 at Yale to expanding the national labor movement by welcoming all voices–especially those who are often marginalized like women, Black workers, people of color, and immigrant workers. President Mills understands the American economy is built on a union label, and that workers are stronger when they are united. I look forward to working with her in her new role as President to make sure that American workers always come first because when workers organize together, they win together!”

“Under her leadership, Unite HERE is delivering historic new contracts for workers, expanding into new workplaces and regions, and bringing in more women and people of color—not only to be a part of the movement but to lead it,” said Shuler. “President Mills and Unite HERE show us what a modern, inclusive, resilient union looks like—a union that empowers its members to fight and win.”


Press Associates
Press Associates

Press Associates Inc. (PAI), is a union news service in Washington D.C. Mark Gruenberg is the editor.