Leading up to last week, news headlines pairing the words “housekeeper” and “politician” together tended to refer to scandals like those facing Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Meg Whitman and their respective sexual assault and immigration law transgressions. The news from the Providence City Council reads differently, after voters in the city’s Ward 9 chose Carmen Castillo as the Democratic Party nominee in a special primary election on October 25. Castillo, a hotel room attendant, Dominican immigrant, and Executive Board member of the local hospitality workers’ union UNITE HERE! Local 217 is well-positioned to become the newest Providence City Councilor. Last week she garnered 358 votes in the ward election last week, forty-six ahead of her closest Democratic competitor in a six-way primary that garnered 1,221 votes overall.
Castillo’s breakthrough into city politics follows on the heals of another recent victory: earlier this year she and her co-workers at the Westin Hotel in downtown Providence successfully pressured the hotel to settle a lengthy labor dispute. When Castillo—a single mother of three who has worked at the Westin for more than fifteen years—lost her health insurance after a series of cuts to workers’ compensation, she organized her co-workers to call for a public boycott of the hotel. She declared: “With my job at the Westin, I have been able to buy my own home on the South Side of Providence and put my three daughters through school. I could not have done this with the $4.00/hour factory job I worked before starting at the Westin. I don’t want to lose everything we have worked to build here.” The Westin’s owners, the Proccacianti Group, eventually rescinded plans to increase subcontracting and make cuts to employee health care coverage and wages after the extended protest. Upon winning a new contract after over a year of picket lines, Castillo spoke of her co-workers dedication and bravery. “I am so proud we persevered,” she said.
That perseverance translated into electoral victory for Castillo. Over the course of her six-week campaign, she relied on regular door-knocking from Union members. With support from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Providence Teachers Union, Castillo’s campaign focused on labor-to-labor outreach with voters in her largely working-class ward—consisting of the Elmwood and Washington Park neighborhoods between Broad and Elmwood Street. One janitor and SEIU member, Celsa DelPolzo, explained to reporters before election day that she and other service workers mobilized for Castillo “because she is a worker like us who comes from the bottom and understands what it is to struggle and fight to achieve something.” DelPolzo added that she and other service workers “see ourselves reflected in her and we are inspired that someone like us could aspire to represent working families.” This sentiment resonates especially on a City Council that currently consists of many more career-long city administrators than it does rank-and-file labor movement organizers.
Now, the Castillo campaign looks forward to the general election on November 29, when she will face off with Republican nominee Chris Chirino, a twenty-year-old Community College of Rhode Island student who brags about his penchant for Ayn Rand novels and strong border patrol enforcement on his campaign webpage. (Chirino automatically became his party’s nominee after running unopposed.) In a heavily Democratic ward, this college-aged conservative is not expected to pose a serious electoral challenge. The night of her nomination, Castillo sent a Spanish-language Facebook message to her supporters: “GRASIAS A MI DIOS POR HACERME TAN LUCHADORA.” After struggling from poverty-wage service industry jobs to victory in a highly contested primary race, she stopped to thank God for making her such a fighter.
HALEY KOSSEK B‘13 is a fighter.