It’s a strange feeling to recognize someone not by his or her face, but by their name-tag. This was the experience I had in Providence, Rhode Island this past week, where I attended the annual Netroots Nation conference for progressives on behalf of my union, UNITE HERE Local 11. It was good to finally match up the tweets to all these faces that I had been in touch with for the past year.
I arrived at the conference later than most of my UNITE HERE comrades because of my work schedule and a delayed flight. One of the moments that I was sad to have missed was when hotel workers from the Providence Westin came onstage and thanked the Netroots organization for moving its 2010 conference from their hotel due to a contract dispute with the Westin over wage cuts, slashes in vacation and the elimination of union jobs for subcontracted ones. A bit touching for a guy like me who is a hotel worker and likes to see my brothers and sisters treated fairly.
Netroots clearly helped in allowing those workers to get a fair contract and they even made good on their promise to return to Providence once the contract was settled. (The Westin was a partnering hotel for the conference this time around.) More proof that boycotts actually work.
Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren was a delight to listen to even though her voice was hoarse from speaking truth to power. (Um, I mean, campaigning.) She gave the keynote speech on Friday morning and it felt like the right way to kick off my next few days.
I was fortunate to meet people like Lizz Winstead, founder of The Daily Show and Angie Aker, managing editor of Moveon.org. I trembled while talking to them like a star-struck teenager. Make no mistake. These ladies are my Beatles.
Between the panels about online organizing and Punditry 101, I went to a staffer/blogger mixer where I discovered that I am a nerd who barely has any social skills. Put a bunch of people in a room who only talk with their fingers on keyboards and it gets awkward very quickly. There was alcohol at the mixer, but I steered clear of it and remained a sober neurotic rather than a drunk one.
On Saturday morning renowned economist Paul Krugman gave the keynote speech and I live-tweeted so fast that my thumbs hurt. Krugman has “smart” written all over his bearded face. His eyes tended to dart around the room as if he were out to grab ideas.
Krugman was well spoken, but Erica Payne of the Agenda Project upstaged the keynote. She gave out Fed Chair Ben Bernanke’s office telephone number to the large audience. She said something to the affect:
“The wealthy have him on speed dial, but shouldn’t he be on speed dial for all of us?”
Payne then urged us all to call and insist that the Fed chairman remove JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon from the N.Y. Federal Reserve Board. She set off a tweet storm with the number 202-452-2955 bouncing around in cyberspace. I could hear a thousand thumbs tapping their iPhones.
After panels and trainings during the day our evenings were spent at parties making new friends and getting acquainted with new twitter handles. The meet-and-greets seemed to be never-ending and I was constantly amazed to meet people that I have been reading online for years. We attended an SEIU karaoke party one night. The next evening we were at a union bar where in the distance I saw AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka swarmed by union members.
UNITE HERE wrapped up Netroots with a Sunday breakfast for all the great people we had met along the way. It gave us a good opportunity to urge them to sign some of our boycott petitions for various hotels that we are engaged in contract disputes with.
The highlight of my trip, however, was meeting housekeeper and Providence City Councilwoman Carmen Castillo, who is also a UNITE HERE member. She won her election in 2010 after the Westin contract dispute was settled. She might be the only housekeeper/councilwoman in the country, and she still feels the need to be a leader in her hotel while also leading the community.
Speaking to her made me feel more important than just a server in a hotel restaurant. She made me realize why my trip to Netroots was so important. Reminding me of many of the housekeepers I work with at the Hyatt Andaz in West Hollywood. The same heart, the same fight. The same people who merely want to be heard.
I asked Carmen why she had decided to run for office.
“Because big victories by small people encourage all of us,” she said.