UNITE-HERE to Disunite?

by Ivan Osorio on February 9, 2009

in Economy, Labor, Politics as Usual

UNITE-HERE, the 450,000-member textile and hospitality union, is embroiled in a “civil war,” according to its president, who is now openly considering breaking up the union. UNITE-HERE was created as a result of a 2004 merger between the United Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees (UNITE) and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE). The New York Times explains the logic behind the merger:

On paper, the marriage made sense, besides making for the catchy Unite Here name. Unite — the descendant of two illustrious New York unions, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union — had lots of money to organize workers, but few workers left to unionize because so many apparel jobs had moved overseas. At the same time, Here was starved for cash, but saw an ocean of hotel and restaurant workers to unionize.

The idea was that once the unions merged, Unite’s ample treasury — it owns Amalgamated Bank, the only union-owned bank in the nation — would underwrite a surge in organizing.

But now the marriage is on the rocks. The merged union, comprising two disparate industries, maintained a dual leadership structure — Bruce Raynor, who headed UNITE before the merger, became General President, while former HERE chief John Wilhelm became president of UNITE-HERE’s hospitality division.

Now Raynor is accusing Wilhelm of wasting what were UNITE’s resources and trying to take over the union. He and some of his allies filed a federal suit accusing Wilhelm of violating the union’s constitution and going beyond their authority. Wilhelm says that he has respected constitutional procedure, and in turn accuses Raynor of a power grab. The rhetoric is getting heated.

“We’re not going to allow them to hijack the resources that were put aside by generations of ladies’ and men’s garment workers,” Mr. Raynor said. “We’ll do whatever we have to do to show that we can’t be held captive by a bunch of thugs.”

Mr. Wilhelm said the executive board and committee had followed the union’s constitution.

“The notion that the merger should be disbanded because Bruce Raynor can’t be a dictator is a proposition that may make sense for Bruce Raynor, but it doesn’t make sense for the workers in our industries,” Mr. Wilhelm said.

According to the Times, the UNITE/Raynor and HERE/Wilhelm factions cannot even agree on whether the union should split into its previous component parts. But someone else sure does seem to think the breakup should take place:

On Jan. 30, Andy Stern, president of the powerful Service Employees International Union, wrote to Mr. Raynor and Mr. Wilhelm saying their merger had failed and suggesting that Unite Here or either of its original halves merge into his union.

But Mr. Stern’s own union has been riven by dispute. He has ousted the leaders of a local representing 150,000 health care workers in California, and they responded by founding a rival union that is trying to get many of those 150,000 workers to secede from the service employees and join them.

You’d think Stern would have enough on his plate.

Among the accusations and insults volleying back and forth between Raynor and Wilhelm, it’s hard to assess who has the stronger case, but one thing seems certain: Competing egos like these cannot be easily assuaged. This may drag on for a while.

As a side note, I couldn’t help but notice this quote:

“It’s terrible to have these civil wars going on right now in what are among the most dynamic unions in the country,” said Joshua B. Freeman, a labor historian at City University Graduate Center in New York. “It’s a terrible waste of energy and undercuts tremendous possibilities.”

Is there any other area of the social sciences where one can expect to hear such blatant advocacy?

For more on UNITE-HERE, see here.

For more on SEIU, see here.

Update: UNITE-HERE Executive Vice President Edgar Romney today announced that he and several other union officials have filed a resolution with the union’s General Executive Board to dissolve the 2004 merger and for a disaffiliated UNITE “[t]o explore a relationship with SEIU.”

Update 2: John Wilhelm, president of UNITE-HERE’s hospitality industry division, announced on Monday night that, “the General Executive Board of UNITE HERE voted by a substantial 62% to 38% margin to remain unified.” Now it’s time to watch for Raynor’s next move.

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