She Could Have Been a Manager, But Chose to Side with the Workers


Jaye Rykunyk — One of a New Breed of Organizers Shaking Up the Unions

(Managers Don’t Like Her, She Says, Because “They Know I Could Do Their Jobs”)


Jaye Rykunyk has been making history for her union and for the AFL-CIO as a whole. A fight her local led last fall became national news when the management at the Holiday Inn Express in Minneapolis called in the immigration police against undocumented Mexican workers, mostly women. They had voted to join Rykunyk’s union, Local 17 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE). (See the Spring 2000 issue of Labor Standard for more on that case.)

Jaye Rykunyk is the fighting secretary-treasurer of HERE Local 17. She and her local were instrumental, with widespread union and community support, in winning the release of the detained Holiday Inn workers from the custody of the Immigration and Nationalization Service (INS; also known as “La Migra”). Local 17 and its supporters came up with the $10,000 bail to free the workers, and a big article in the local press featured a photo of union organizer Rykunyk embracing one of the Mexican women after she came out of the INS jail cell.

Local 17 continued to fight for its eight INS-targeted members, turning to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) with charges that the workers had been discriminated against. In January, Local 17 won the case, and the EEOC granted each of the workers $8,000 in damages. Local 17 mobilized enough support in the labor movement, the churches, and the community at large that the INS granted a two-year stay of deportation. Seven of the eight HERE workers were allowed to stay and continue to work in this country.

Local 17’s successful battle at Holiday Inn Express was a model example of the union movement standing up for undocumented workers and undocumented workers joining the unions. The AFL-CIO singled out this case for special mention in the document it passed in February changing its policy on immigration and emphatically taking the side of undocumented workers.

The May issue of America @ Work, the AFL-CIO’s glossy, large-format monthly magazine, featured Local 17’s fight with a major article entitled “Recognizing Our Common Bonds,” calling on the ranks of labor to follow the example of the HERE local and take up the fight to organize the estimated 6 million undocumented workers now employed in this country. The “Common Bonds” article is a reaffirmation and extension of the AFL-CIO’s changed policy on immigrant workers’ rights.

In view of the central role of Local 17 and its chief officer, Jaye Rykunyk, we are reprinting an article about Rykunyk by Glenda Crank Holste, a Twin Cities journalist who has been covering social and economic policy for 10 years. Holste vividly captures the unusual and outstanding qualities of Jaye Rykunyk, a working-class fighter who is helping to change the face of the union movement. Holste’s article, headlined “Uppity Lady Labor Leader Leads Immigrants to Win,” appeared on the Internet in “Women’s E-News.” — The Editors.

*   *   *

MINNEAPOLIS — Here in the land of populist movements and legendary hard-knuckle labor struggles, a former hotel hostess-turned labor organizer, Jaye Rykunyk, describes herself as “way too uppity” for management negotiators, but her defiance and determination have spelled victory.

Rykunyk led about 1,000 members of Local 17 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees on a successful, 13-day rolling strike in June against seven hotels, winning a stunning five-year increase that totaled 106 percent in wages and benefits. The labor press is still abuzz about union cohesion [and] effective tactics [displayed in the strike] and Rykunyk’s (pronounced Ri-KOON-ik) dogged work and dynamism.

Going into contract talks, workers earned from $7.50 to $13 an hour in base wages. The union includes many immigrants from East Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and many other places far from Minnesota. They speak in at least 17 different tongues, and Rykunyk mobilized workers, many of them women, in mass meetings with translators of seven or eight languages.

In a shrinking universe of unionized American workers over the last generation, women have been the success story. In 1962, women composed 19 percent of union membership. In 1997, women represented 39 percent. And Jaye Rykunyk is drawing more and more of them into her ranks.

Tall, graceful Somali women, with shawls covering their heads, walked the picket lines, joined by third or fourth-generation European Minnesotans from white-collar shops, Mexican room cleaners, and celebrities from the local social justice community. It was part theater, all solidarity — and it worked.

The settlement was reached on the eve of the international convention of Alcoholics Anonymous that would pack all the hotels [with 50,000 visitors].

“The things the employers believed would separate us are, in fact, the things that really made us strong,” Rykunyk told reporters afterward.

“The most significant thing about this contract is the empowerment of the membership. They understand they can withstand hardship and stand and fight, and they can come together from different ethnic groups and get it done,” she said, noting that 30 percent of her local [consists] of immigrants.

New immigrants and those from previous generations have a lot in common. They both faced workplace exploitation and many of them came from countries where strife, famine, wrongful imprisonment, and other perils made walking the picket line seem like a walk in the park.

If you’ve eked out a living under a rapacious warlord in Somalia or escaped from a lion in the Ethiopian desert, it doesn’t take a lot of courage to stand up to management and wave a picket sign in Minnesota. And, at least 10,000 Somalis have settled in Minnesota, part of an estimated 50 percent increase in foreign-born Minnesotans during the 1990s.

Rykunyk herself comes from a background of hard knocks, and her candid, aggressive style and jabbing wit have earned her both praise and criticism from other labor leaders. Management, predictably, tends to be critical, but quietly.

Her negotiations with Minneapolis hotel management were especially difficult, she says, because she is a woman who is “way too uppity.” Furthermore, early in her career she walked away from a hotel management job and took the path to worker leadership. “I offend them,” she said in an interview. “They know I walked away from a management job and that I could do their own jobs.”

Kicked Out of School for Civil Rights Activity

Rykuynk, 52, comes from a background of personal struggles. A native of Minnesota whose family moved to Arkansas when she was a child, she calls herself “as white-bread a girl as you can get.” She learned searing civil rights and justice lessons during adolescence in Arkansas. She was suspended from a Little Rock high school in 1964 for participating in a civil rights demonstration. She chose to end her formal schooling on that defiant note and she embarked on a career dedicated to achieving dignity and respect for working people.

Bruna Alvarez and her 2-year-old daughter Delia are congratulated by HERE Local 17 Secretary-Treasurer and Principal Officer Jane Rykunyk (left) April 25 after a deportation hearing in Bloomington, Minn.

She joined the union in 1979 when she was a Minneapolis hotel dining room hostess. She soon became an organizer, and four years ago she was elected secretary-treasurer, the top, full-time job.

And work is something that Rykunyk lives and breathes. A Saturday afternoon doesn’t mean a trip to the beach, but a trip with other members to a rally supporting the Teamsters strike against the Pepsi bottler in [nearby] suburban Burnsville.

Home is St. Paul’s oldest neighborhood, where the earliest immigrants grappled their way upwards with hard labor and the Finns struggled to organize in the iron mines in the early 20th century. Big trees shade closely built brick and frame houses. The smells of charcoal, cabbage, garlic, and spices waft through the air along with the laughter of children whose families hail from Eastern Europe, Italy, Germany, and the Baltics.

Rykunyk’s Local 17 is an exemplar for the national hotel and restaurant employees union, which in turn is a leading voice in the AFL-CIO’s campaign to reform treatment of immigrant workers. The new emphasis on immigrants represents a turnaround that recognizes the increasing importance of organizing among the foreign-born. There are no statistics on the number of immigrants who belong to unions, but their presence is everywhere.

Reflecting the growing importance of immigrant labor, the national AFL-CIO Executive Council in February called for replacing the system of employer verification of workers’ eligibility to work in the United States. It also called for enactment of a new amnesty program for the 6 million undocumented workers in the United States.

Linda Chavez-Thompson, AFL-CIO executive vice president, said then: “Immigrants have played an important role in building democratic institutions. The current system of immigration enforcement in the U.S. is broken. If we are to have an immigration system that works, it must be orderly, responsible and fair.” Chavez-Thompson, the highest-ranking woman in American organized labor, is herself a woman of color and the daughter of Texas sharecroppers.

“You need to get over cultural and language barriers to tell workers what their rights are under the law,” Rykunyk said early last year. “That is where you make or break your union organizing ability.” Those efforts paid off in the hotel strike.

Rykunyk knows what cultural sensitivity means in the workplace. “It means breaking down stereotypes, such as the ‘lazy Mexican worker,’ “ she said, noting that most people in Mexico work 12 hours a day six days a week. “They just break up the time differently than here.”

Tibetan and Asian workers, she said, take the view that they are doing piece work. “If the expectation is to clean 15 hotel rooms and that work gets done before the shift is over, then the worker should be able to sleep—that’s the thinking, and we’ve gone through lots of grievances over sleeping on the job.”

At what was to be a regular, low-key leadership meeting for the St. Paul Trades & Labor Assembly after the hotel strike, Rykunyk entered the room and was greeted with a standing ovation and shouts of “thanks.”

(For more information on “Our Common Bonds,” the AFL-CIO’s report on the challenge represented by immigrant workers, visit: http://www.aflcio.org/articles/commonbonds/index.htm)