Hotel Workers' Union Gets First Woman President

The leading union for U.S. hotel workers has elected its first woman president ever, a big moment for a labor group that represents thousands of housekeepers across the country.

Gwen Mills’ rise to the top of Unite Here caps a long career inside the union, from her early years as an organizer battling Yale University in Connecticut to a more recent stint running Unite Here’s political ground game against Donald Trump in the swing state of Nevada. The union’s delegates tapped Mills to lead them in a vote held Friday in New York City at its quinquennial constitutional convention.

She acknowledged her election was a landmark for a powerful union that happens to be made up primarily of women, many of them immigrants.

“I think it’s an important moment for our members,” Mills said, noting that women now lead some of the largest unions, as well as the AFL-CIO labor federation. “I feel rather humbled to join a group of trailblazing union leaders who are women.”

Mills has been running the union on an interim basis since her longtime predecessor, D. Taylor, stepped down at the end of March. She takes over during a challenging but hopeful time. 

I feel rather humbled to join a group of trailblazing union leaders who are women.Gwen Mills

Despite the strong economic recovery, Unite Here has not fully recouped its membership losses since the COVID-19 pandemic prompted hotels and airlines to lay off workers and change the way they operate. The union had around 265,000 members last year, still down from above 300,000 before the pandemic, according to the union’s annual reports.

Yet many workplaces are clearly ripe for organizing right now, with labor breaking through at name-brand companies like Starbucks and Trader Joe’s, as well as the National Labor Relations Board reporting a sustained increase in union election requests. Unite Here has been part of a recent surge in successful union pushes throughout higher education and an upsurge in work stoppages.

Mills said the union plans to double the amount of money it invests in trying to organize new workers, including in the South.

“This is the moment to drive at that,” she said. “The labor movement of late has been really fiery. Workers are doing all sorts of things, which is a great moment to be in.”

The union has waged dozens of rolling strikes at hotels in Southern California since last year, pressuring hotel operators into offering bigger raises and stronger safety protections. Under the new contracts, workers will see their wages climb $10 per hour over the next four years. Mills said the battle will continue in cities around the country as contracts with the likes of Marriott, Hyatt and Hilton expire elsewhere. 

Mills ran the union's ground game in Nevada against Donald Trump in 2016.
Mills ran the union's ground game in Nevada against Donald Trump in 2016. Christie Gimpel | Goodlight CreaChristie Gimpel | Goodlight Creative Studio

Many operators have tried to cut back on services like housekeeping, leading to fewer jobs or available hours — shifts Mills said the union is committed to pushing back against.

“A lot of the fight is about the workload issues, the cutting of services, and just what the hospitality industry is going to be,” Mills said. “The industry is combining jobs and cutting services.”

She compared the post-pandemic era of hotel work to the way airlines changed after 9/11.

“The airline industry seized on that to really transform the quality of those jobs,” Mills said. “And I think we’re at a real pivotal moment with the hospitality industry about whether the crisis of COVID is going to shift things in that way, and this fight is important in that regard.”

The union also faces a major test of its political operation this year. 

Unite Here is among the most aggressive unions in turning out voters in pivotal areas like Pennsylvania, Nevada and Arizona. Mills said the union will have its largest 2024 operations in those three states, with smaller ones in Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina and Georgia. 

Trump wants to deport millions of immigrants and has a playbook to attack unions like, right out of the gate.Gwen Mills

Mills headed up the union’s Nevada operation in 2016, when Hillary Clinton narrowly took the state from Trump. Mills previously ran the union’s political program in her hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, during a stretch when it succeeded in getting 10 members elected to the city council.

The union’s canvassing and phone-banking in places like Philadelphia — where turnout in the 2022 midterms was alarmingly low for Democrats — could be crucial for President Joe Biden winning reelection against former President Donald Trump. 

“It’s hard to say what isn’t at stake,” Mills said.

Unite Here has a long history with Trump that precedes his presidency. Its members used to work for Trump at his casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and won a hard-fought organizing battle at his Las Vegas property, which tried to prevent housekeepers and other service workers from unionizing during his first presidential run.  

Mills sees another Trump presidency as disastrous for her union’s members and workers more generally. Many of the union’s hotel and food service workers are Latin American and Asian immigrants. Trump has said that migrants crossing the southern border are “poisoning the blood of our country.”

And if Trump wins another term, Mills expects his labor policies will echo those of his first — when he made it harder for employees to organize and peeled back workplace protections at the expense of everyday workers.

“Trump wants to … deport millions of immigrants and has a playbook to attack unions like, right out of the gate,” Mills said. “Can we, as a labor movement, focus on organizing workers and still have the legal rights to do that and move forward? Or are we going to be perpetually on defense, trying to protect our members?”