UNITE WHERE? SEIU Offers a Hand as UNITE HERE Power Struggle Goes Public

The civil war in the upper reaches of UNITE HERE took a nasty turn January 22, when UNITE veteran and International President Bruce Raynor filed suit against fellow officers in U.S. District Court in New York.

Both sides of the union are jockeying for control ahead of the union’s first election since UNITE and HERE merged in 2004. The fight is drawing the attention of Service Employees (SEIU) President Andy Stern, who offered his own solution.

The lawsuit is part of Raynor’s attempt to shore up support in a union where HERE members predominate. At the time of the merger, UNITE had lost many of its members in a dying domestic textile industry, but brought cash through its union-run Amalgamated Bank, with assets near $5 billion. HERE brought a potential for growth in the hotel, restaurant, and gaming industries. The HERE side of the union has grown more quickly, organizing about 70,000 workers in the last six years, while UNITE ranks have stagnated.

The merger included a power-sharing agreement between Raynor and HERE President John Wilhelm, who took the title of hospitality president.

But the General Executive Board, composed of dozens of vice presidents, is dominated by HERE allies. Raynor accuses Wilhelm of abusing majorities on that board and a smaller decision-making body to resolve disagreements between the two presidents. According to the complaint, “The express language of the Constitution, all Union precedent, and the basic understanding of the parties to the merger are all to the contrary.”

Raynor’s suit seeks to reverse decisions made at a December 17-18 meeting of the executive committee, where Wilhelm’s allies voted to put two UNITE-led joint boards in the Northeast under trusteeship and appointed HERE allies to oversee them. HERE also sought administrative and budget changes whose greatest impact fell on UNITE-heavy departments. Outnumbered UNITE leaders abstained in protest.

Noel Beasley, head of the union’s Midwest Regional Board, joined the suit three weeks after sending in staffers to oust HERE veteran Joe Daugherty from his position as Michigan state director.

The disputed executive committee meeting shifted an important power, formerly held jointly by Raynor and Wilhelm, to the committee. The HERE-dominated grouping now has the power to review and approve any “growth agreements” with employers. The move is seen as a response to deals crafted by Raynor and SEIU. In 2005, they signed agreements with Sodexho and Compass, two transnational companies that provide laundry, housekeeping, and food services.

The secret agreements, exposed in May 2008, allowed the two unions to organize certain locations without company interference, but drew criticism because the pacts allowed the companies to limit organizing to specific sites, forcing the unions to drop others where campaigns were under way. They also limited the total number of workers allowed to organize and waived workers’ right to strike.

The deals fueled a long-standing division within UNITE HERE over organizing strategies.

STERN PROPOSAL

On January 30, SEIU President Andy Stern offered Raynor and Wilhelm a way out by inviting them in. “After four years, we believe it is time as well as necessary for our movement, for both unions to reconsider their future—including a merger into SEIU as UNITE HERE or ending their merger and returning to their previous status and merging into SEIU as separate organizations,” Stern said.

A February 4 letter signed by Wilhelm and his majority on the executive committee—all defendants in Raynor’s late-January lawsuit—thanked Stern politely for his interest in building a stronger labor movement but asked him to wait till after UNITE HERE’s February 10 executive board meeting. (That meeting had been scheduled for Las Vegas, an HERE stronghold; Raynor moved it to Washington, D.C., citing security threats.) Raynor did not sign the response to Stern, raising questions about his next move as HERE leaders appear poised to take over the top spot in the union this summer.

Comments

M Reingold (not verified) | 02/27/09

Recent discord in UNITE HERE is creating concern that in Canada the fight could end up involving other unions.

Bruce Raynor past head of UNITE, and joint president of UNITE HERE is worried that he will lose power to the majority of the union which is largely from the old HERE. At stake is the $5 billion Amalgamated Bank owned by the union. To try and stop this he has begun to try and secede the old UNITE locals from the union.

Raynor has launched a war of disruption in the Union to try and force a settlement on his terms. In the process he has not only launched a lawsuit but has:
-Used his areas of power in the union to put other locals into trusteeship, thereby removing the local elected leadership in an attempt to deprive the majority of votes at the convention.
(see http://labornotes.org/node/2099)
-Launched websites attacking HERE leader and co-president of UNITE HERE John Wilhelm, the website strangely resembles the anti-union site unionfacts.com
(see www.fixourunion.org )
-Pulled organizers off of union drives from both Canadian and US UNITE locals to run campaigns to try and split HERE locals away from HERE and into the UNITE end of the fight.

In all of this Raynor now finds himself support by Andy Stern, the president of SEIU. Clearly SEIU hopes that Raynor if he is able to win his war of disruption will merge UNITE into SEIU bringing with him the $5 billion bank.

This is where Canada begins to fit into the equation and raises some serious issues for the labor movement.

Given that the majority of the UNITE HERE executive board show no signs of letting the divorce take place without a vote at the convention, which Raynor will lose, the options for Raynor and his Canadian ally Alexandra Dagg, legally taking members out of UNITE HERE are limited.

One scenario could see Raynor and his allies take what they can and merge quickly into SEIU. But with few members Raynor would have to raid his old union UNITE HERE through SEIU. If not through SEIU then through any number of proxy unions backed by Raynor and SEIU could be used to raid UNITE HERE.

Already in Toronto and Ottawa there are accusations that the recently formed Canadian Hospitality and Entertainment Workers Union is one such front. While the leaflets, which have been handed out at Hotels organized by HERE, have a picture and statement by Buzz Hargrove on them, it is believed that it is front for the UNITE end in Canada. The reason for these rumors is that organizers for this new union (which has no members) have been showing up on HERE members doorsteps and have remarkably accurate membership lists – suggesting a high degree of inside help – presumably from UNITE in Toronto.

If Raynor and Dagg merge into SEIU, it would then be SEIU that would be interfering in the internal affairs of another CLC affiliate. This opens up comparisons to the raids by the CAW against SEIU in Ontario that created a major rift in the labor movement.

In that case several SEIU locals voted to leave SEIU and join CAW. Similar to the UNITE HERE situation, these locals were prevented from leaving in that manner by the SEIU constitution. The CAW used that pretext to openly raid SEIU in Ontario – particularly in the healthcare field.

The result of this was that SEIU and other unions demanded that the CAW be kicked out of the Canadian Labor Congress.

One wonders if the current leadership of SEIU in Canada, which came together to fight the CAW raids and has helped rebuild SEIU in Canada, will be able to stomach the thought of being turfed from the CLC for raiding UNITE HERE.

Sharlene Stewart, president of SEIU Canada, has built a reputation as fighter against raiding. At the last CLC convention she gave an impassioned speech against raiding between affiliates of the CLC. It begs to question whether she would allow SEIU’s name in Canada to be used to raid another union, especially one as prominent as UNITE HERE.

Stewart must know that if SEIU Canada is seen as raiding, or assisting to, raid a CLC affiliate it will provoke calls for SEIU’s expulsion from the CLC. Other unions, especially the CAW, would probably be more than happy to see SEIU lose the anti-raiding shield of the CLC.

It would be a sad irony that after rebuilding from the raids of the late 90’s SEIU Canada could see itself facing the same charges that it leveled against the CAW. The difference this time is that if removed from the CLC, SEIU would undoubtedly face raids from CLC affiliates interested in gaining members from SEIU.

Further it would be sad to see SEIU Canada which has engaged in very innovative organizing campaigns to unionize workers turn against a union that has done much to raise the cause of mainly immigrant hotel workers.
M. Reingold

Bank on it (not verified) | 02/09/09

Stern & Rainer would devour each other w/in a year after a bromance. (They kinda look alike -- if they were both wearing purple it would cause a double take.) You can't have two autocrats run the same show. Stern just wants the bank. Rainer is possibly more dictatorial--he didn't keep an inner circle. He's toast in July. He'll say anything till then. Don't believe a word Rainer says. It's gonna be a bumpy ride...

Paul Ortiz, Ran... (not verified) | 02/05/09

Apparently putting UHW into trusteeship is not enough for the greedy Andy Stern. Now he wants Unite HERE. To my brothers and sisters in Unite HERE, we were happy to support your struggle this last summer at the san jose convention center marriott. I and my brothers and sisters in UHW marched with pride and chanted Si Se Puede with you and marched on your bosses to get your contract with the marriott going. Do yourselves a huge favor and tell ANDY STERN to shove his dictatorial ideas up his ***!!! Do not let this thief and his thugs get control of your union, you will never have a voice in your union and will be stuck with 20 year contracts. Tell stern to keep to himself and leave you all the **** alone or you will live to regret it, I know our local does.

Anonymous (not verified) | 02/05/09

Bad - Bad idea!! Andy Stern is the worst sort ever to call himself a Unionist! Moving to a Right to Work state will give you more say in your affairs than joining SEIU,, don't listen to anything this jackal Stern says.. He's pure poison for Unions everywhere.. That goes for his Cheat to Win coalition too!

Save yourselves RUN do not walk as faraway From SEIU as possible!!

Fr4. Someone close to UHW