The Never-Ending Labor Wars

At first glance, you might think that a settlement could be glimpsed, albeit at a distance, in the increasingly bitter fight between the hotel workers’ union leaders who now control UNITE HERE and the onetime apparel workers’ union leaders who have left the union and since affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). On June 15, John Wilhelm, now the undisputed president of UNITE HERE, sent a memo to SEIU President Andy Stern that recounted a litany of horrors -- such as urging workers to switch sides -- that SEIU and the apparel workers’ leadership had visited upon UNITE HERE in the course of the conflict. The memo also endorsed the recommendations that United Food and Commercial Workers President Joe Hansen, who attempted to mediate the dispute last month, had put forth to resolve the conflict. “President Hansen’s recommendations provided a clear path to settlement,” Wilhelm wrote.

The following day, Stern and apparel leaders Bruce Raynor and Edgar Romney (now officials of Workers United, a subgroup of SEIU) sent a letter to Wilhelm in which they took pains to note that they would not respond by recounting the litany of horrors -- such as disrupting SEIU’s organizing campaigns -- that the hotel workers’ leaders had visited upon the apparel workers and SEIU. More important, while acknowledging that they had not endorsed Hansen’s proposal last month, they asserted that they “now agree that it is a good framework for a solution,” although they stipulated that they will “have differences on some points.” They called for submitting the unresolved issues between the two sides “to binding arbitration using President Hansen’s proposal as a framework for an arbitrated settlement.”

So does this signal a breakthrough in ending a war of far more than words between two of America’s most effective progressive unions? On the common ground of Joe Hansen’s proposal, can hatchets be buried? Can both sides’ harassment of the other side’s members, locals, and organizing campaigns be brought to a halt? (SEIU says, for its part, it has now stopped this harassment, but UNITE HERE insists that it continues, even as its own campaign of harassment continues, too.) Can a unified movement turn again to fighting for labor-law reform and universal health care and to organizing the unorganized?

Apparently not – certainly, at least, not yet. “We won’t arbitrate our continued existence,” Wilhelm told me during an interview Friday. He said he does not believe that SEIU will go along with Hansen’s key recommendation – that SEIU relinquish its jurisdictional claims over hotel and gaming, the sectors that the hotel union had represented before it merged with the apparel union in 2004 to form UNITE HERE. Stern and Raynor claim they’re embracing Hansen’s framework, Wilhelm charged, but, he told me, “they’re both liars.”

When UNITE (the apparel workers’ union) and HERE (the hotel workers’ union) merged five years ago, UNITE brought abundant financial assets (including the Amalgamated Bank and, in its headquarters building, some prime Manhattan real estate) to the merged organization but little to nothing in the way of an organizable sector. The American clothing and textile industry was being almost entirely offshored, leaving UNITE with a dwindling membership centered in industrial laundries and department-store distribution centers. For its part, HERE didn’t have much in the way of financial assets, but in the hotel and gaming industry, it had a uniquely non-offshorable work force it could organize. The merger took place, that is, in part because neither union could realize its potential as a freestanding entity: UNITE had resources but nobody to organize; HERE had workers aplenty to organize but lacked the resources to do so on a large scale. And now that UNITE HERE has split into its original component parts (though there are locals within each that have gone over to the other side), the battle over who gets what has been ferocious.

Wilhelm’s side was at all times the clear majority within the merged union, and since the former UNITE side has pulled out, the Wilhelmites have a strong legal case to the lion’s share of the assets that UNITE brought to the merged organization. But the legal process could drag on for years, and for now, the bank and the real estate are in the hands of Workers United-SEIU. (UNITE’s leaders never relinquished control of the bank, and their locals retain considerable resources of their own.) Hansen proposed a cash settlement from SEIU to UNITE HERE, while allowing Workers United to retain control of the bank, in return for granting UNITE HERE exclusive hotel and gaming jurisdiction.

If Workers United had not gone into SEIU, it would argue for some of that jurisdiction as a matter of sheer existential survival. SEIU, however, is a 2 million-member union that represents health-care workers, public employees, janitors, and security guards. There’s no doubt it would like to start organizing hotels and gaming as well. But a number of its leaders privately concede that the union doesn’t need the additional jurisdictions and that they could live with an arbitrated settlement that forecloses hotel and gaming to them for up to a decade. Wilhelm, however, insists that their call for arbitration is merely “a spin campaign” that masks their true intent.

All of which points not just to a continuation but an escalation of the conflict. The Stern, Raynor, and Romney letter to Wilhelm said that their offer to arbitrate was good until the opening of UNITE HERE’s convention on July 1. After that, if no arbitration ensues, SEIU will likely rejoin the battle for the allegiance of locals, and it surely has more resources at its disposal than UNITE HERE can muster.

Meanwhile, a number of presidents of other unions have called on the two sides to settle their dispute. “This conflict is causing collateral damage that goes beyond the current and former leadership and members of UNITE HERE to harm the labor movement as a whole,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote in a May 28 letter to both Raynor and Wilhelm. “The inflamed rhetoric; the barrage of accusatory correspondence, advertisements and robo-calls; the judicial and parliamentary maneuvering; the internal annexations and purges; and the appeals to the rest of the labor movement to take sides paint an increasingly ugly and unrepresentative picture that threatens to stain two proud traditions, damage the interests of your members and do irrevocable harm to the reputations of all involved.”

With more, apparently, still to come.

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