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Labor leader Castillo elected to City Council

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, December 5, 2011

Newly elected Providence City Councilwoman Carmen Castillo is no stranger to victory. As a union leader and room attendant at the Providence Westin hotel for more than 15 years, Castillo played an instrumental role in settling disputes between her co-workers and Westin management, including bringing about a successful end to the worker-organized public boycott of the hotel in spring 2010. Now, Castillo will take the fight to City Hall, where she said she hopes to focus on defending workers’ rights and improving education and city services.

Castillo, elected last Tuesday in a race that saw a total turnout of fewer than 650 voters, has a record of taking up the cause of other workers on the Westin’s housekeeping staff — she once convinced nearly 45 other room attendants to stop working for the day and to wait together until the general manager arrived to hear their grievances. In the contest for the city council, Castillo benefited from the support of Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, who campaigned with her.

During the 2010 boycott, she organized and led several negotiations to facilitate discussion between managers and employees.

“It’s clear to me she’s not just someone who says she’s going to vote, but organize and fight,” said Haley Kossek ’13, a volunteer for Castillo’s campaign and a member of the Brown Student Labor Alliance involved in the boycott. Kossek and about a dozen other Brown students, including members of the Brown Democrats and the Brown Student Labor Alliance, canvassed for Castillo in her predominantly working-class Ward 9 in South Providence — one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city.

“Ward 9 is in some sense a neglected community in terms of public services,” said Jesse Towsen ’12, a campaign volunteer and president of the College Democrats of Rhode Island, a federation of college Democrat groups that includes Brown’s chapter.

“There are students who have been to her home multiple times,” Kossek said, adding that Castillo’s charisma and likability allowed volunteers to engage with her on a personal level.

“I’m not the kind of person who’d get involved in a campaign just because a person is Democrat,” Towsen said. He said he was inspired to volunteer by Castillo’s relatable background and commitment to making the city work better for its residents.

“They know who I am and what I stand for,” Castillo said of her volunteers from Brown, some of whom stood in picket lines and attended solidarity meetings during the boycott. “Brown University has the best students,” she added.

The grassroots efforts of Castillo’s volunteers proved crucial in October’s Democratic primary, when Castillo beat out five other nominees by 46 votes.

“She’s just inspirational, and she makes you believe in the struggle,” said Samuel Adler-Bell ‘12.5, a member of the Brown Student Labor Alliance who first met Castillo the summer before his sophomore year while interning at UNITE HERE local 217, the service employees union where Castillo is an executive board member. “You have a conversation with her — you’ll do whatever she says,” he said.

Adler-Bell, who attended a negotiation session between workers and hotel management Castillo organized during the boycott, said Castillo demonstrated her potential as a political leader by giving everyone a chance to speak and preventing the attending manager from interrupting workers.

Castillo, who plans to keep working at the Westin while reducing her hours to accommodate the demands of her new job, hopes to continue the legacy of Miguel Luna, the labor activist who preceded her as the Ward 9 representative on the city council and her close friend. Luna passed away in August.

Luna’s death was “really upsetting,” Adler-Bell said. The councilman was a strong supporter of  the Westin boycott and often a formidable presence at picket lines.

Castillo said she wants to continue to work on issues important to Luna while  pursuing her own dreams for her community when she takes office.

Adler-Bell said Castillo’s election reflects a growing and promising trend of workers and union leaders taking office in city governments in the last few years. “Carmen’s story is emblematic of the model that we should all hope for,” he said.

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