Kurt Petersen is a longtime union activist who currently serves as co-president of UNITE HERE Local 11.
Petersen attended Yale Law School because, in his own words, “there was nothing else to do.” While at Yale, Petersen organized a protest of a local wine store that drew a police presence. Talking later about his time organizing at Yale, Petersen bragged “we could do anything we wanted to, like secondary, tertiary boycotts. Whatever we wanted to do, we were doing it.”
In Petersen’s mind, unions and union activists like himself are the good guys, and anyone and everyone who thinks differently are evil. In fact, Petersen blasted a former UNITE HERE organizer who now works against the union as “pure evil” and proclaimed “I know there’s hell because he’s got to go.”
The way that everything for Petersen boils down to the “kind of power” you can only have “in a union job” tells you a lot about how he now approaches organizing. In fact, a federal judge once blasted Petersen for “unreliable embellishment” during an NLRB hearing and added he gave “scant weight to [Petersen’s] implicitly inconsistent testimony.”
In 2019, a Los Angeles hotel was forced to issue a cease & desist order against Kurt Petersen after he and Local 11 were accused of repeatedly defaming the hotel. For example, Local 11 organized protests of the hotel promoting claims that workers at the hotel had to tread through “five inches” of sewage. Petersen’s claims came only a week after Los Angeles’ health department issued the hotel an “A” grade. The allegations against the hotel that Petersen promoted were also the subject of a complaint filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), but a search of OSHA’s inspection database now returns no results related to the hotel.
Petersen makes a big show of trying to seem like he relates to the average worker, but sometimes, the mask slips. In 2016, he sat down for a wide-ranging interview about his time as a union organizer, during which he boasted “I’m not modest.” Mysteriously, the clip of Petersen saying that line was edited out a video of the interview later posted online.
Petersen also played a leading role in Local 11’s efforts to fight pandemic aid for the tourism industry. In September 2020, Kurt Petersen was quoted in a Bloomberg story alongside a UNITE HERE researcher who expressed doubt PPP funds would “bring [hospitality] jobs back.” In May 2021, Petersen sharply criticized proposed federal aid for the hospitality industry as “a slap in the face to” workers. Bizarrely, Petersen’s comments came only days after UNITE HERE’s national headquarters argued the very same proposed federal aid would help workers, “most of them women and people of color,” “be able to get their jobs back.”
Since Petersen joined UNITE HERE in 1995, he has earned more than $1.8 million from the national headquarters and Local 11 combined, and in 2021 alone, he took home more than $124,000. Thanks to his generous, dues-supported salary, Petersen owns a more than 2,000 square foot home valued at $1.1 million.
No doubt Petersen lives a comfortable life thanks to UNITE HERE. In 2016, he admitted his union drive pitch to workers is neither “about money” or “health insurance,” even stating “in a non-union setting, I don’t care what they pay people.” In Petersen’s mind, it is only when one works for a unionized workplace that one has “freedom.”