Retired history professor Marty Bennett has been involved in the unionization of four Sonoma County hotels, and currently is advising the effort to establish UniteHere Local 2 as the bargaining agent for Sonoma Mission Inn employees. The Sun’s Anna Pier checks in.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your work with labor?
The fact that in this country workers have no rights. The cards are stacked against the workers. Our labor law is so weak – the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act) is weakly enforced. The only way to address inequality is through unions. Research shows that interracial unity occurs best in a union. And of course unions address economic inequality.
What’s your background?
I was born in Washington, DC and grew up there and in Bethesda, Maryland. My grandfather came to DC during the Progressive era, in the ‘20s. My parents and grandparents were all civically involved. My maternal grandmother was a suffragette, and active in the Women’s Movement, and the early labor movement to establish workplace standards. I just donated her suffrage banner to her alma mater, Simmons College in Boston. They are doing a major project there on the early women’s movement.
This shaped your values.
As I was growing up, all of my family were New Dealers. My mother worked in the Department of Labor. I was part of this Washingtonian liberal Democratic culture. My family’s engagement continued into the Great Society, under Lyndon Johnson. People in my family worked in the Department of Justice, and the Office of Economic Opportunity, in the War on Poverty. Also, I’m a son of the Unitarian Church. This is a cosmopolitan, relatively secular church, rooted in deep civic engagement. Although not racially diverse, it has a long history of struggle for racial justice.
After high school, I went to Brown University, where I was swept up in the anti-war movement. I believed the U.S. was committing war crimes, pursuing genocide, in Vietnam. I decided to “Go West.” I transferred to the University of Oregon, where I was very involved in SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). I became a draft counselor for students looking for a deferment. By 1970, on any day in San Francisco there were 5,000 AWOLS, draft dodgers, or deserters. There was an underground railway from S.F. to Eugene, then to Portland, Seattle, and Canada. My formative outlook on the world, on a sane foreign policy, was shaped by my studies in history and poly sci, and my participation in social movements.
With just two quarters to go to graduate, I left Oregon and came to a trade school for welding, in SF. In the ‘70s I worked for eight years in the shipyards around the Bay area. I was in several different unions including Machinists Local 68 and I was active in the rank and file reform caucus Machinists for a Democratic Union. Unions were hierarchical, grudgingly desegregated. In those years I was much involved in projects around race – desegregation of housing, ending redlining. In the Mission District there was a big struggle against BART and the developers and speculators who were pushing gentrification around the BART stations. I was part of a faith-based organization push for rent-control and other worker protections. Also, I was very involved in CISPES, about politics in Central America.
How did you get to teaching?
In the early ‘80s I went for my M.A. in Social History at UC Davis. At this time a revolution was occurring in American historiography. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the U.S. had come out in 1980. I studied labor history, women’s history, Black history, Latinx history. I taught high school a few years, then in ’89 I got a job in the History Department at Santa Rosa Jr. College. All my experiences, the lived history from the late ‘60s on, gave me lots of material for my students. I retired from full-time teaching in 2013, but continued working part-time up until Covid.
How would you describe your life work?
I traverse, or bridge, the worlds of academia and of social movements, especially the labor movement. This year I have been involved in a history project for the University of Oregon Library, collecting oral histories of activists at the university during ’68-’72. My work has been to develop community support for whatever I am involved in, union organizing, or coalition building. In all the organizations I’ve worked in, the intent has been to build community support for unions, to build bridges between the community and labor. I have been involved in the unionizing of four major hotels – the Petaluma Sheraton, the Graton Casino, the Santa Rosa Hyatt, and the AC Hotel – on the Hwy.101 corridor. Prior to that, Sonoma County had no union hotels. And I am deeply involved with the UniteHere Local 2 campaign to unionize the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn.
Tell me about UniteHere.
UNITE is the “Union of Needle, Industrial, and Textile Employees” and HERE is “Hotel Employees, Restaurant Employees.” Both unions go back to the early 20th century, the dawn of the labor movement. UniteHere has a democratic structure, is member-run, and they spend 50% of their low dues on organizing, with a focus on the service sector. They also have a stress on winning political power by negotiating with employers for employees to have paid time-off to canvass as union employees at election time. It’s not a large union – there are about 300K members in the US;15,000 in the Bay area. It is multi-racial and ethnic, with members from 40 countries speaking 108 languages. It focuses on training members to become leaders.
Talk about the Fairmont SMI campaign
We have had new leaders rise up in this local campaign. We sent a delegation to Paris to meet with the CEO of Accor, the group that operates the Fairmont which is owned by Brookfield Private Equity. It included an amazing young leader, Ale Santoyo, and other SMI employees who are leaders in this organizing effort. A key part of all this effort is the building of community support, through extensive outreach, to organizations, institutions, and individuals. I have been doing one-on-one community education at an information stand at the Farmers Market every Friday for months.
What has been your most significant achievement?
I was co-founder of two coalitions that are deep, enduring coalitions. One is the North Bay Organizing Project, and the other is Jobs with Justice, which grew out of the Living Wage Coalition. Jobs with Justice today is a bilingual organization, member-run. This is a deep coalition with a vision that addresses multiple issues – living wages, affordable housing, immigrant rights, healthcare.
Thoughts about the future?
As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “All workers deserve a living wage.” My hopes for the future are that one day that will occur.