Since the 1960s, when public sector workers across the country risked jail to win the right to organize, American labor hasn't had many struggles it could boast of -- those David-and-Goliath battles where long downtrodden workers won against all odds. Instead, there have been a relative handful of dramatic victories that demonstrated that fiercely dedicated workers within smart and determined unions could still prevail. There were the immigrant janitors who won recognition from the real estate magnates of America's downtowns, the textile workers who fought for 17 years before bringing J.P. Stevens to heel, the Las Vegas housekeepers who brought middle-class living standards to the bastion of casino capitalism by keeping a strike going for close to seven years.
In a time when American labor didn't have many successes to point to, the three unions that won these battles -- respectively, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) -- could point to organizing victories that were the envy of the movement. HERE had the distinction of being the only union in America to take a major city in a Sunbelt, right-to-work state -- Las Vegas -- and turn it into a union town. Beginning in the mid-80s, the union's leaders ran a campaign that, in time, organized 90 percent of the hotels on the Vegas Strip. HERE grew the local from 18,000 members when they began to more than 50,000 today, and won contracts that brought middle-class living standards to what had previously been a low-wage work force in a labor-hostile city.
As labor battled to renew itself over the past several decades and to move past the ideological barriers of George Meany's AFL-CIO, these unions often led the charge. Throughout the 1980s, it was the Amalgamated that led the opposition to the AFL-CIO's support for Ronald Reagan's Central American interventions. In the late 1990s, it was HERE that persuaded the AFL-CIO to reverse its longstanding opposition to immigrant workers (a battle that the International Ladies Garment Workers Union -- the ILGWU -- had waged to no avail throughout the 1980s).
These were unions that, whatever their flaws, inspired workers to take very real risks in collective action, and inspired young people to devote their lives to organizing. That's why, when HERE and UNITE (the union that resulted from the 1995 merger of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers with the ILGWU) merged in 2004 to form UNITE HERE, there was widespread excitement in labor circles. The new union would be able to combine two groups of very talented union leaders, organizers and researchers, along with UNITE's considerable financial resources, to organize tens of thousands of hotel housekeepers and waiters and cooks.
Along with SEIU's property services division, which organized janitors, UNITE and HERE led the labor movement in their ability to organize immigrants and people of color into vibrant unions. At times, the unions seemed just about the only ones able to organize private sector workers in America, through campaigns that entailed intense rank-and-file mobilization, the construction of broad-based community support groups, and political and economic pressure on employers. In Los Angeles, the main HERE local provided the seed money for the nation's most visionary and effective living wage movement, which in turn spurred the growth of such groups in a hundred other cities. In New York, the Amalgamated Bank, owned by UNITE and its locals, played a key role in launching shareholder lawsuits against miscreant corporations (it was the lead plaintiff against Enron), including a series of suits that compelled pharmaceutical companies to reduce the costs of their AIDS medications in Africa.
These were among, at times, the most innovative unions in America, and by joining together, UNITE and HERE formed a new union that seemed to have everything going for it. What could possibly go wrong?
As it turned out, a lot.
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