Civil war in UNITE HERE

March 31, 2009

Ruby Wolf looks at the background to the battle that's breaking up a union widely seen as progressive.

THE CIVIL war in the UNITE HERE union has opened up a new front, with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) giving support to a breakaway faction.

The split is the result of a power struggle between John Wilhelm, who was president of the former Hotel Employees Restaurant Employees (HERE) union, and Bruce Raynor, of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE). Wilhelm and Raynor are leading factions struggling not only for control of UNITE HERE's 400,000 members, but also over the union's Amalgamated Bank, which had $4.7 billion in assets last year.

UNITE HERE, one of the larger and more liberal unions in the labor movement, is coming undone. The key differences are the rival leaders' competing notions of top-down union "reform," as well as which faction will wield power under the union's constitution.

In 2004, Raynor and Wilhelm agreed to merge their two unions, aiming to create a more powerful force. Raynor's UNITE had a lot of money at its disposal, yet a dwindling membership as a result of job losses in its core garment industry. For its part, Wilhelm's HERE had 300,000 members, but was short on funds.

UNITE HERE members picketing a hotel in northern Virginia
UNITE HERE members picketing a hotel in northern Virginia

The two unions did have some common ground in battles with three employers--Aramark, Sodhexo and Cintas, which are dominant players in uniform, laundry and food service industries. A joint union ought to be a much-needed weapon to take on these employers, who employ both uniform laundry workers represented by the old UNITE and food services employees organized by HERE.

Thus, the unions merged, allowing HERE to gain access to UNITE's much larger financial resources, while UNITE got the jurisdiction to organize.

During the 2004 founding constitutional convention of UNITE HERE, the merger was finalized with a peculiar structure. Essentially, the union was supposed to be run by the two presidents, Raynor and Wilhelm, giving unchecked decision-making power to both.

So despite being a single entity, the old organizational structures of UNITE and HERE remained intact. Raynor's loyal staff continued to run UNITE's old joint boards that oversee locals across the country, while Wilhelm's allies remained in charge of the former HERE locals.

Thus, if the two co-presidents disagreed, there was always the potential that the union would divide along the lines of the merger. And that's what has taken place.

Raynor has accused the HERE side of being too liberal with the union's money and argues that the union is not gaining enough members.

"Since 2005, UNITE HERE has spent more than $61 million on organizing in HERE's hotel and gaming sectors with little to show for it," Raynor wrote in a letter to union members. "The total membership of our union is stagnant, and only about 32,000 workers have been organized in those robust sectors. In contrast, only $10 million has been spent on campaigns in UNITE's traditional manufacturing, distribution and retail sectors, yet we have organized 7,000 new members in those struggling industries."

For his part, Wilhelm argues that locals need more money in order to help them grow. He accuses Raynor's organizers of agreeing to substandard contracts in order to entice employers into accepting unionization.

"President Raynor...openly admits that he believes his powers should be used unilaterally to trade away the contractual rights of our affiliates and their members to obtain voluntary recognition at non-union shops (i.e. "growth") from major corporations," Wilhelm wrote in his own memo to union members. "President Raynor has frequently stated that the union's greatest enemy is 'standards.' By 'standards,' he means contractual standards regarding our members' wages, benefits and working conditions--standards the union has fought hard to establish over many years."

THE DISAGREEMENTS between the two presidents came to a breaking point during UNITE HERE's national settlement with Aramark. A national boycott and strike campaign organized by the union pushed the company to the bargaining table. Wilhelm hoped to sign an agreement that would allow thousands of employees in a couple of major cities to sign union cards.

While both presidents were in negotiations with management, Raynor reportedly made a backroom deal with the company. The deal settled a national contract that allowed markedly fewer employees to sign cards than Wilhelm had wanted. And rather than concentrating new union members in key cities, the deal brings union recognition to shops scattered all across the country.

The situation deteriorated into an all-out war in the beginning of September when Raynor changed the bylaws of the Amalgamated Bank, giving more control to the bank directors. The move essentially gave control of the bank--a creation of one of UNITE's predecessor unions--back to Raynor.

Members from both sides then began to struggle for control of union locals and resources. In January, former UNITE staff forcibly removed the elected leadership from UNITE HERE Local 24 in Detroit from their offices, declaring that the local would be put under trusteeship. The Local 24 executive board then convinced most of its members to sign petitions to have the local disaffiliate from the joint board that oversees them. Similar struggles of control of locals have arisen in Phoenix.

In February, Raynor attempted to introduce resolutions that would have allowed UNITE to secede from the union at the general executive board meeting in Washington, D.C. However, the resolutions were voted down, with the majority of the executive board loyal to the HERE side.

The UNITE faction then filed a federal lawsuit against Wilhelm and his loyalists, arguing that the constitution of UNITE HERE should be declared null and void because the 2004 merger failed in its stated goal of unionizing large numbers of unorganized workers.

IT SEEMS unlikely, however, that Raynor will be able to secede from UNITE HERE through the courts or through the union's constitutional process. The UNITE faction on the general executive board had little prospect of gaining a majority of the board in advance of the UNITE HERE national convention, set to take place in June.

Thus, Raynor has resorted to forcing his way out of UNITE HERE with the support of SEIU President Andy Stern, who, ironically, was a guest speaker at the UNITE HERE merger conference.

The UNITE officials, with support from SEIU staff, have mobilized to disaffiliate joint boards from UNITE HERE. On March 21, they held a convention of a new union, Workers United, at which 450 delegates claimed to represent 150,000 workers. The new union, led by Edgar Romney, a former UNITE official, will be a satellite of SEIU, which will finance much of Workers United operations. The convention voted to raise the possibility of direct affiliation to SEIU in the future.

Raynor's claim that 150,000 members have already defected from the national union is shaky, given that his skeleton staff may not have been capable of successfully disaffiliating this many members in such short time.

Wilhelm alleges that UNITE's maneuvers are undemocratic, arguing that UNITE officials had circulated petitions to members about leaving the union, rather than holding a vote--and that some locals had no petition or votes at all.

A formal split between the merged unions is still far from certain. A number of locals under the old UNITE joint boards have disaffiliated from them in order to group with locals loyal to HERE.

What is certain is that friendly relations between Wilhelm and Stern have been severed. UNITE HERE and SEIU were the main leaders in the 2005 split in the AFL-CIO that led to the establishment of the Change to Win federation. Now, however, with the SEIU's intervention in UNITE HERE, Wilhelm is trying to negotiate re-affiliating his union with the AFL-CIO. Yet at the same time, pressure from the White House has compelled Change to Win and the AFL-CIO to reunify as well.

The power struggle between two sections of the UNITE HERE bureaucracy comes at critical time for the labor movement. Corporate America is gearing up to destroy the Employee Free Choice Act that would make it easier to join a union, and employers are out to make workers pay for the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.

Neither faction battling for control of UNITE HERE--or other union leaders, for that matter--have offered a strategy capable of meeting that challenge. In the end, the revitalization of the unions will depend on workers themselves acting together in struggle.

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