Disunite There

Harold Meyerson's three-part history of the current struggle within UNITE HERE. Read also his companion piece, A Condensed History of Labor Since the 1960s.

In 2003, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) found itself embroiled in a major contract dispute with Yale University. Yale, in a sense, was the birthplace of the modern HERE, for it was at Yale, two decades earlier, that a Yale alum named John Wilhelm had led a brilliant and successful campaign to organize the university's clerical workers. Every year since that organizing campaign, Yale had turned out a number of graduating seniors who went to work as researchers and organizers for what had previously been a rather stodgy, unambitious and not entirely honest union. And coming off his success at Yale, Wilhelm was sent to revive a HERE local in a very different environment -- Las Vegas. Heading a cadre of militant young organizers, Wilhelm led a campaign that grew an 18,000-member local to a 50,000-member giant, representing 90 percent of the hotels on the Strip. In the process, Wilhelm, who became president of HERE in 1998, and his lieutenants transformed HERE into one of few organizing success stories in post-1980 American labor.

In 2003, however, Yale was once again opposing the union's bid for a contract, and HERE, its treasury diminished by the post-September 11 downturn in tourism, put out an all-points-bulletin to other unions for assistance. The union that helped out most was UNITE, the New York-based union of clothing and textile workers, which provided both financial assistance and thousands of troops. One morning, busloads upon busloads of Chinese-American, Latino, and African-American garment workers joined Yale's clerical workers on the picket line, all but shutting down New Haven for the day. Shortly thereafter, Yale settled and the clerical workers won an excellent contract.

Out of that victory came what for a time was a genuinely close relationship between the two unions' presidents -- HERE's Wilhelm and UNITE's Bruce Raynor. Like Wilhelm, Raynor was an Ivy League alum, and a child of the '60s left. Like Wilhelm, Raynor hadn't worked his way up the union as an attorney or a local leader but as an organizer, most notably, of the workers at J.P. Stevens Textile, a campaign that lasted 17 years before the company finally agreed to a contract.

More important than any personal ties, however, were the strategic synergies both presidents began to see between their two unions. HERE represented a sector of the economy that could not be offshored and that was still largely unorganized -- hotels and, their more lucrative partner, casinos. By the mid 20th century, HERE represented many downtown hotels in the heavily unionized cities of the Northeast, Midwest and West coast (that is, San Francisco), but HERE's old-line and not-famed-for-their-honesty leaders did nothing to expand their union into newer Sunbelt cities or into airport or suburban hotels. Starting in New Haven, though, Wilhelm and his band of organizers transformed the union’s locals, and after he became president, they also cleaned up HERE’s corrupt locals and led the fight to turn around the AFL-CIO's antipathy to immigrant labor. But HERE was a union of shaky finances when Wilhelm took it over, and they grew shakier still after the September 11 attacks.

Raynor faced the reverse dilemma: He headed a union with significant financial resources, but whose membership, comprised of clothing and textile workers, was quickly disappearing as those industries relocated abroad. Like Wilhelm, however, Raynor headed a union whose members were disproportionately female and immigrant. The more the two talked about the synergies between their unions, the more they believed that a merger made sense. Raynor’s UNITE had money and a cadre of organizers and researchers as talented and dedicated as HERE's -- but nobody to organize; Wilhelm’s HERE had a thriving industry to organize, but no money to do it.

In 2004, then, the two unions merged to form UNITE HERE. Raynor was designated the general president and Wilhelm, the president of the hospitality division, with considerable decision-making power vested in the two of them until the union’s first convention, scheduled for this June. The new union, which had more than 400,000 members, looked at the time to have the brightest of prospects. It was sure to become a center of labor's most creative and ambitious programs. It was sure to gain more members.

But things didn't quite work out that way. Today, UNITE HERE is splitting apart in a bitter civil war that pits the UNITE side against the HERE side in a vicious, ugly fight. Some of the savviest and most dedicated union leaders and staffers ever to work in American labor are savaging each other as the UNITE side of the union endeavors to break away from the larger HERE side and a custody battle rages over the union's financial assets. For people who believe in the American labor movement, and who've seen the positive changes that these unions have made in the lives of their members, watching this battle unfold is like watching two good friends caught up in a vicious divorce. Sometimes one is right and sometimes the other is, but after a while, the battle takes on a life of its own, and the merits of each side's case become a secondary issue.

As things now stand, with UNITE HERE's first post-merger convention scheduled for late June, the UNITE side locals, which represent a minority of the merged unions' members, have announced they will not attend. At a Feb. 9 meeting of UNITE HERE's general board, the UNITE-side members presented a resolution to dissolve the merger, which was defeated by a 39-to-24 vote that broke down almost entirely along union-of-origin lines. Since then, a number of UNITE-side locals have begun the process of disaffiliation from the national union.

The HERE forces, who comprise a clear majority of UNITE HERE’s general board, say that the union should remain united even if Raynor’s UNITE-side lacks the votes to control the upcoming convention. They argue that the resources that UNITE brought with it into UNITE HERE -- the Amalgamated Bank, with its $4 billion of assets, and prime Manhattan real estate -- should stay with UNITE HERE, and concede that the bank’s head should come from the UNITE-side of the union. The UNITE-side counters that the bank was built by the deposits of thousands of clothing workers, now chiefly retirees, and that their UNITE-side representatives should retain control. Primarily, the UNITE-side argues that the two original unions have turned out to be totally incompatible, divided above all by fundamentally different approaches to organizing. Raynor and Wilhelm have met repeatedly but have failed to arrive at an agreement. (This week, they were in another series of meetings to see if there's a way to resolve the conflict, with Joe Hansen, the president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, serving as mediator.)

The UNITE side has expelled HERE-side officials from the board of the bank and strengthened its control of the bank with measures that the HERE-side leaders are contesting. Raynor’s side also sued the HERE side for allegedly pre-empting Raynor's presidential powers and re-assigning them to the executive board. The HERE side has prevailed upon the union's public review board to request a Department of Labor investigation of UNITE's actions. Each side has endeavored to take over some of the other side's locals through a variety of means -- expulsion of local officers, planting sympathizers in the other side's locals, on-site leafleting and phone-banking members to urge them to shift their allegiances. HERE calls Raynor a dictator wishing to break up a union he can no longer control; UNITE says that HERE is wedded to an organizing model so rigid that the union has been unable to grow even when the opportunity has been there for the taking.

Recently, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the nation's most powerful union, entered the fray on UNITE's behalf with an offer to take one or both halves into its own ranks -- an offer that provides UNITE, which is now eager to go in, with a place to regroup and HERE, which has no intention of being absorbed, with the prospect of having to face a very well funded competitor. The pressure on HERE from SEIU and UNITE seems intended to force HERE to agree to a division of UNITE HERE's resources -- something that HERE views with apprehension. As one HERE leader sees it, "Bruce's idea of divorce is to take the UNITE members, the HERE members and 90 percent of the resources."

It wasn't ever thus.

The best of friends
At the time of the merger, Raynor and Wilhelm clearly hit it off: I remember, after one meeting, watching Raynor cluck over Wilhelm like a mother hen as Wilhelm embarked on a rare vacation. Today, both Raynor and Wilhelm confirm how much they liked and respected each other then -- and both say how mistaken they were about the other. But both also insist that the dispute is not really personal, and in this, they're right.

UNITE and its predecessor unions had been unions in which the central office and the president always mattered a great deal. David Dubinsky, the legendary president of the ILGWU, and Sidney Hillman, the founding president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, were major public figures (Hillman was the union leader closest to FDR) who zealously guarded their turf. HERE was a union of largely autonomous locals. Since for decades the union had no ambitions to expand beyond the older-city downtowns it already represented, and since the union didn't really have a national program at all, each local pretty much ran its own show. When Wilhelm and his reformers took the union over, they controlled a number of locals -- and there were a number that they really didn't control all that much, if at all. The national leader of a union that had no history of national leadership, Wilhelm spent little time in the small suite of offices that served as the union's national headquarters in Washington, preferring to work out of the ramshackle offices of the Vegas local, and preferring even more to travel from local to local.

At the time that Raynor and Wilhelm were considering merging their unions, many of UNITE's secondary leaders questioned the terms of the proposed merger. HERE was the larger of the two unions. Unless the merged union's growth really took off, and unless the two halves of the union melded quickly into one, it was clear that HERE delegates would dominate the unions' first post-merger convention, in 2009, and have a majority on the executive board during the five years (2004-9) leading up to the convention. Under the deal that Raynor and Wilhelm were concocting, Raynor would be the president of the union until then, with Wilhelm volunteering to step into a lesser role of president of the Hospitality Division, and the two signing off on all major policies as co-presidents. The general assumption at the time was that Wilhelm, who was five years Raynor's senior, would not challenge Raynor at the 2009 convention, and that the interim co-president arrangement would come to an end with Raynor's election as the union's one and only president.

Raynor was no stranger to mergers. When he was the lead organizer on the Stevens campaign, Sol Stetin, then the president of the union -- the Textile Workers -- concluded that the union didn't have the resources to take on Stevens, and merged it into the larger Amalgamated Clothing Workers, willingly taking a subordinate role in the merged union. (Stetin was Raynor's mentor and role model, and when Wilhelm essentially volunteered to do the same thing that Stetin had done to enable the UNITE HERE merger to go through, the gesture plainly touched Raynor.)

In the late '90s, as the number-two official in the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers, Raynor watched as his union merged with the smaller ILGWU, a far wealthier union by virtue of its ownership of lots of prime Manhattan real estate in which it had established the offices of its New York locals in the early and mid-20th century. The merger went through, but the ILGWU side of the merged union, UNITE, retained control of its financial assets. A few years later, when Raynor tried to advance the agreed-upon retirement date of UNITE president Jay Mazur, who'd been president of the ILGWU, so that Raynor could take control and put through the changes he thought the union needed, the ILGWU-side leaders voted to pull out of the union and take the ILGWU's resources with them. The merger had plainly been structured to facilitate just such a course of action, and only Mazur's intervention kept the ILGWU from pulling out.

But in 2004, Raynor was convinced that the merger with HERE would work. Over the cautions of other UNITE officials, he negotiated a deal with no such escape hatches. The new merged union, not the UNITE side (which came to the table with the greatest resources), would control the organization's resources, chiefly, its Manhattan real estate, as well as HERE's Washington headquarters building. The Amalgamated Bank, the last labor bank in the nation, remained largely in the hands of UNITE-side locals, but HERE leaders were added to the bank's board. If the two sides did not come together, if divisions emerged, the HERE side would have the numbers to control UNITE HERE and most of its resources.

Raynor, however, believed in the merger and in Wilhelm. He foresaw a powerful, progressive union that would organize new members in large numbers.

Ambitious campaigns for the new union
In short order, the newly merged UNITE HERE embarked on two ambitious campaigns. One, in what is called the multi-service industry, expanded an ongoing campaign to unionize worksites of Aramark, Compass and Sodexho -- companies that staff stadiums and cafeterias with food-service and janitorial workers, and that also employ laundry workers to clean uniforms, tablecloths and the like. The campaign, undertaken jointly with SEIU, has yielded 17,000 new members. Critics from the HERE side of the union (as well as critics outside the union) have complained that the agreements have been top-down and given the companies undue power to select which of its workers will be unionized, though the union has subsequently compelled Sodexho to lessen its role in the selection process. They also say that the contracts that have emerged from these agreements have failed to provide good wages or benefits.

The more ambitious campaign was called Hotel Workers Rising. As early as 2001, well before the two unions had even contemplated merging, the leaders of HERE conceived a strategy for growth: by aligning their contract-expiration dates in the cities where they had contracts with a critical mass of hotels, they could threaten a national strike against two worldwide hotel chains (Hilton and Starwood, which at that point owned the Sheraton, Westin, St. Regis, W and Four Points chains) unless those chains agreed to not to oppose organizing drives in the hotels, and cities, where the union didn't have contracts. By 2006, in part through the determination of its San Francisco members to work without a contract for nearly a year, the union's biggest hotel locals -- in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Honolulu and San Francisco -- all had contracts that expired. UNITE HERE put major resources into a campaign to win bargaining rights all across the land.

Rallies were held major cities; John Edwards and Danny Glover walked picket lines from coast to coast; contract negotiations proceeded apace -- but no major breakthroughs were achieved. The UNITE-side officers and staffers, many of whom played key roles in the campaign, complain that HERE's model of organizing, which usually entails a lengthy campaign to establish a militant workers' committee, was too rigid; that the union was unable to respond to the opportunity afforded by the prospect of a national job action. Where the number of hotel workers has grown, they contend, it was in locals -- they cite Las Vegas, San Francisco and New York -- that employed more flexible organizing strategies. They argue that even with the additional financial resources that the merger provided, fewer workers have been organized in four of the five years since the merger than in the five years preceding it. "Their organizing model doesn't yield results," says one UNITE-side leader. "There are hotels where the union won card-check years ago that they still haven't organized because they're still setting up their committees."

To this, HERE leaders respond that new hotels were indeed unionized in Hotel Workers Rising, indeed, that the union organized 23 hotels with 3,663 workers just in 2008. That’s not a huge number, but, they argue, such campaigns take time: After all, Raynor spent 15 years organizing Stevens, and UNITE has been trying for the better part of a decade to unionize Cintas, a laundry and cleaning conglomerate. They note that some of their growth in union strongholds such as Las Vegas depends on new hotel construction, which has been lagging of late. They also point to the generally excellent contracts that the union won for its hotel workers in 2006. (Some of the hotel locals with heavily immigrant memberships have won remarkable protections for their members, including language committing the hotels to hold open for a full two years job slots for members deported by the federal immigration police.)

But the premise of Hotel Workers Rising, as formulated by HERE well before the merger, was that a coordinated, nationwide contract expiration afforded a unique opportunity to grow -- and when the contracts did expire, a major increase in members didn't follow. The union's largest local whose contract was up that year, New York, actually reached a settlement for its own members while the national campaign was still under way -- a reflection of the historic autonomy of HERE locals, but not a move calculated to enhance a campaign premised on the union's national leverage and solidarity.

The HERE worker-committee bottom-up model of organizing, its leaders argue, produces a membership better able to win a good contract. It can take a long time -- "sometimes, too long," one leader concedes -- but the contracts justify the sometimes tortuous means. UNITE leaders, by contrast, share a vision of union growth that can be more top-down, that is more wholesale than retail. The growth -- organizing previously unorganized workers -- justifies what may be less than stellar contracts. HERE leaders couldn't disagree more. "If I have to spend the next phase of my life fighting top-down organizing," says one, "that's fine with me."

All-out civil war
By 2007, Unite-side staffers and local leaders were expressing their exasperation that HERE’s organizing tactics were often inimical to growth, while HERE-side leaders were complaining that Raynor and his lieutenants didn’t understand the hotel industry. At some point over the past year, as the 2009 convention began to loom ever larger, the differences between the two sides of the union escalated into all-out civil war. Each side found the other increasingly difficult to work with. Each side accused the other of trying to sway its members to the other's camp -- with HERE locals leafleting members of UNITE locals and with UNITE, in conjunction with SEIU, waging a much more ambitious and costly phone canvass of HERE members. Local leaders have been ousted; allegations of financial improprieties have been hurled back and forth. At a moment when American labor is pinning its hopes on congressional passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would greatly ease the task of organizing, the fight in UNITE HERE is providing fodder for EFCA's opponents.

Until relatively recently, the UNITE-side leaders lacked a coherent strategy. They could disaffiliate their locals and try to hang on to the financial resources they brought to the merged union, but as a free-standing union, they lacked a viable mission: Their industry was quickly disappearing. Over the past month, however, SEIU has ridden to their rescue, with its president, Andy Stern, offering to take one or both sides into SEIU as a union within a union.

Though the offer may seem impartial, neither the UNITE-side nor the HERE-side views it as such. After years of successfully organizing janitors and private security guards, SEIU has a considerable track record dealing with the private equity companies and real estate investment trusts that own many of the major buildings -- offices and hotels -- in America's downtowns. (Increasingly, the hotel chains franchise their name and their management services, while the hotels themselves are owned by other major investors. As well, the Blackstone private equity group now owns the Hilton chain.) For years, says Stern, SEIU has spurned all offers to organize hotels and casinos, though they may be owned by some of the same firms with which SEIU bargains for janitors and guards. "It's been hard for us not to organize hotels in cities where no other union was present," he adds, "but we haven't."

HERE-side leaders take Stern's intervention as a threat: Let UNITE go and strike a deal to divide the union's assets (that is, don’t tie up the bank ownership question in litigation), or SEIU will come into hotels with more resources than HERE could possibly amass. (As well, SEIU's organizing model for hotels may well prove more viable than HERE's.) HERE-side officials are particularly incensed by the extensive phone bank operation to disaffect their members, which they allege is an SEIU operation (a charge that sources on the UNITE-SEIU side don’t dispute).

If the UNITE-side, as part of SEIU, doesn't go into hotels, there remains a very real question as to what industry it would organize. With the prospect of increased government control of banking, one possibility is that an SEIU-backed UNITE -- the one major union based in New York and the only union to own a bank of its own -- might go in for organizing tellers.

In truth, both halves of UNITE HERE would have trouble making it on their own, for the same reasons that drove them to merge in the first place: Declining membership in UNITE, declining bank account in HERE. Until recently, the HERE side appeared to have the upper hand, as it was poised to control the union and, not without a fight, at least a major share of its resources. The intervention of SEIU, however, has tilted the field back towards UNITE.

And yet -- SEIU, UNITE and HERE are the unions that have bettered the lives of more low-income workers over the past several decades than any others, which makes the campaigns they are currently waging against each other all the more dispiriting. The zeal they have brought to their fights against employers now infuses their battles with themselves. UNITE's predecessors fought J.P. Stevens for 17 years until they won; HERE fought the Frontier Hotel for nearly seven years until it won. Unless the prospect of an SEIU-UNITE combine leaves HERE with no viable options, the current fight won't end easy, or soon.

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