They are, by conservative estimate, the two most goddamn tenacious unions in the United States. The Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE), which Thursday announced their intention to merge, are each known for two of the most remarkable long-term campaigns in American labor history.
From 1963 through 1980, UNITE (actually, one of its predecessor organizations, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers) campaigned to unionize J.P. Stevens, a clothing manufacturer based in the right-to-work South. The workforce was biracial, the cops were against the union, the political culture offered no support, and the standard union playbook provided precious little guidance as to how the union should proceed. But proceed it did: The Stevens campaign was one of the first "new" organizing campaigns that a union had run -- relying on community-based and church-based as well as workplace organizing, hiring some '60s kids, among them a crack organizer named Bruce Raynor, who today is UNITE's president -- which most unions in those days tended to shun. In the end, and against all odds, the workers won their union in a story Hollywood dramatized in the 1979 movie Norma Rae, starring Sally Field.
From 1991 through 1997, the Las Vegas local of HERE was on strike against the Frontier Hotel, one of the oldest lodges on the Vegas Strip. Alone among the Strip hotels, the Frontier refused to sign a contract that granted workers wage increases and enabled them to win union representation at new hotels when a majority of them had signed union-membership cards (a process called "card check"). Five-hundred-fifty workers went on strike and walked a picket line for 24 hours a day (and midsummer Vegas days are a mite warm) for the duration of the strike -- that is, for six years, four months, and 10 days. During that time, not a single worker crossed the picket line. The strike ended only when the owners sold the hotel and the new owners agreed to the contract.
Almost as remarkable as the duration of these campaigns, and the skill and determination required to win them, was their object. At a time when organized labor in America was shrinking (which really is any time since 1955), both of these campaigns represented strategic and groundbreaking efforts to grow. The Stevens campaign was probably labor's most successful effort to break out of its Northeast-Midwest-Pacific Coast ghetto and organize the South. (Up until 15 years ago, when American companies wanted to outsource work to get cheaper labor, they didn't go offshore; they just went south.) And HERE's campaign in Vegas was labor's most successful effort to bypass the roadblocks to organizing that employers were able to erect by manipulation of the increasingly toothless National Labor Relations Act. Instead, by building the kind of worker solidarity evident in the Frontier strike and by offering hotel chains crucial political cooperation on industry-related matters if they acceded to the union's demands, HERE built a local that went from 18,000 members in the late '80s to 48,000 members today through the use of card check -- getting the company to recognize the union when a majority of the workers made clear they wanted it.
At the Frontier and at Stevens, then, the two unions made clear they'd commit an endless stream of resources to campaigns that marked strategic breakthroughs in union building. But neither union has ever been more strategic -- for themselves or for the movement as a whole -- than they were Thursday when they announced their decision to merge.
All too many union mergers take place when one of the mergees is at death's door. That's not the case this time. "We don't have to merge," Wilhelm told me earlier this week, "and they certainly don't have to merge." HERE, after all, is organizing the one industry -- American hotels and resorts -- that by definition can't move offshore. UNITE is an exceptionally wealthy union; it may have more assets relative to its size than any other.
But both unions have problems. UNITE is based in the North American clothing- and textile-manufacturing industry, which has been vanishing at a dizzying pace and which the expiration of all trade quotas in 2005 may effectively terminate. Since the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers merged in 1995, it has organized 82,000 new members. But the industry has lost 850,000 jobs during that time.
In recent years, UNITE has moved into other aspects of the clothing industry. It has organized major chains of industrial laundries and is currently embroiled in a national campaign to unionize the largest such chain, Cintas. It is organizing the distribution centers and retail outlets of some major clothing stores (just now, the Sweden-based H&M chain, which is opening outlets all over the East Coast). But with its core industry going entirely offshore, its membership has been in decline for years and would continue to decline without the merger.
"UNITE has to go through closing a factory they organized every month, sometimes every week," one union leader said last week. "It's horribly depressing. The older workers really don't have a future. Having to do this all the time is horribly demoralizing. So, the merger -- what's in it for UNITE is a future."
Since Wilhelm became HERE's president in 1998, the innovative organizing practices that had taken hold at some locals have become the norm within the international. But the union took a tremendous hit in the aftermath of September 11. (And on 9-11, too: 43 of its members who worked in the World Trade Center were killed.) The hotel and tourism industry went into a huge slump, and HERE, which had had 272,000 dues-paying members on September 10, 2001, saw that number shrink to roughly 150,000 by year's end. In city after city, the union ran food banks and medical clinics for its laid-off members. In time, most, but not all, of those jobs came back, and the union has organized 14,000 new members since 9-11. Today, it has 260,000 members while UNITE has 180,000; the merged union would thus have 440,000.
The explosive growth of the casino industry provides HERE with a major opportunity. Like UNITE, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and a handful of others, it has converted itself into an organizing union, devoting about half its resources to organizing and actually making major cuts in other departments in order to make that change. But it lacks the resources to fund campaigns on the scale of the opportunities it confronts. UNITE's assets, by contrast, total about 10 times those of HERE's.
"That terrible year and a half forced us to rethink how we could build the strength to grow, to achieve the level of union density to get our members good contracts," Wilhelm says. "I used to look for other unions that had real numbers of organized workers in our industry -- but none of them did."
So he and Raynor -- HERE and UNITE, that is -- looked at each other and saw some genuine synergies. More than half the staffers in each unions are organizers, and large numbers are researchers with expertise in their respective industries. Their members -- and the workforces in the industries they represented -- were strikingly similar: majority female, majority immigrants, with sizable minorities of African American members in both unions.
Moreover, the unions complement each other geographically. HERE is strong in the West, where UNITE is weak; and UNITE has strength in the South, where HERE has an abundance of opportunities but hardly any members. HERE has been looking at organizing campaigns in Mississippi casinos (the state ranks third, behind only Nevada and New Jersey, in the size of its gambling industry), and in the hotels of Atlanta and Orlando, Florida, but has had nothing on the ground in those areas. Now, with the merger, it does.
The new union plans to reassign current organizers and hire new ones to avail itself of these and other opportunities. Consolidation will allow for some savings: UNITE has imposing headquarters buildings in a number of cities into which HERE locals could move. (Over lunch on Thursday, Raynor remarked that some of these buildings served as cultural centers for immigrants in the early 20th century and told how members had made donations from their paychecks to help build their Chicago headquarters. Wilhelm observed that the same impulse was probably not so strong among the bartenders who made up the bulk of HERE's members at that time.)
The unions also share a history of progressive political advocacy beyond the realm of collective bargaining. UNITE's chief predecessor organizations, the ILGWU and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers, had both arisen from the ashes of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 as the tribune for impoverished Jewish and Italian immigrant workers. Avowedly socialist unions for their first several decades, they not only won wage increases for their workers but built them health clinics, credit unions, a bank, and apartment housing. Their programs inspired much of the New Deal; their leaders helped shape it. Amalgamated President Sidney Hillman coordinated labor's first real plunge into national politics by heading up its efforts to re-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Even as the old clothing workers unions were the foremost advocates for the great second wave of European immigrants who came to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, so HERE has been the leading tribune for the Latin American immigrants who've come to America. over the past quarter-century. It was Wilhelm who led the successful campaign to persuade the AFL-CIO to change its long-held position from one that viewed immigrant workers as a threat to one that defended their right to obtain citizenship and form unions. It was HERE that sponsored last summer's Immigrant Workers Freedom Rides across the nation.
As for Wilhelm and Raynor, they have known each other since the early 1990s, when Raynor was the Amalgamated's southern regional director and Wilhelm the western regional director for HERE. Both were active in the AFL-CIO's mid-'90s efforts to help unions restructure for organizing, and they became close friends in the process. Raynor will be the general president of the merged organization -- to be called, inevitably, UNITE HERE -- and Wilhelm will serve as president of its hospitality division. Wilhelm will not comment on the speculation that he may run to succeed John Sweeney as AFL-CIO president when Sweeney's term is up in 2005 -- but neither will he say that he won't run.
Both leaders have a long history of trying to prod the labor movement to change fast enough to survive. Last year, both aligned their unions with the SEIU, the Carpenters, and the Laborers in an experimental coalition to bolster organizing efforts. Both believe that larger unions, with more resources to take on global corporations, are essential to the movement's survival. "There are 76 unions," Raynor told me Thursday. "There need to be fewer, more formidable unions. And how do you lead, except by example? If we can do this and it goes well, hopefully that puts the idea in the minds of other labor leaders."
The merger took place during what appeared to be the waning days of the strike of 70,000 supermarket workers in southern California (and with the strike ending Thursday in a tentative agreement that could considerably lower their standard of living). A number of union leaders fear that management in many industries will be emboldened by this victory and try to push their own employees toward more Wal-Mart-like levels of pay and benefits.
"What happened to the supermarket workers could happen in any number of industries; at least, management could try to make it happen," one board member of the merged union told me this week. "You don't merge when you're too weak to stop that. You merge when you have the strength to keep it from happening, when you have the strength to really grow. That's what's happening here."
Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large.