Jaye Rykunyk, dynamic strike leader in Minneapolis

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, effective tactics and Rykunyk’s (pronounced Ri-kun-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.

“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 is comprised 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.”

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.

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 breaths. 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 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.”

Glenda Crank Holste is a Twin Cities journalist who has been covering social and economic policy for 10 years.