The UNITE-HERE Merger: Is It a Step Forward … or Business as Usual?
It’s been a few months now since we heard anything from the New Unity Partnership (NUP), the coalition first described here in October 2003. This coalition-composed of the presidents of the Service Employees (SEIU), Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE), Garment and Textile Workers (UNITE), Carpenters, and Laborers unions-planned to strengthen the U.S. labor movement by increasing union density sector by sector.
The NUP leaders have argued that the labor movement would be stronger if unions stopped rushing to become “general unions”-organizing in a wide variety of sectors-and instead focused on organizing in their core jurisdictions.
On February 26, HERE and UNITE announced that they had “agreed in principle” to merge into one union, to be called UNITE HERE. The unions report that UNITE President Bruce Raynor would serve as general president of the new union, while HERE President John Wilhelm will be president of the hospitality industries division.
While HERE’s website asserts that the two unions’ members are “the same people: service workers, immigrants, African-Americans,” it’s a stretch to say that their industries are related.
In their press materials announcing the merger, the unions emphasize that Raynor and Wilhelm are part of the NUP, “which has recommended many changes to the structure of unions, including the need to join together in larger, more powerful organizations.”
As UNITE spokeswoman Amanda Cooper told the Yale Daily News, “They’ve been saying bigger unions were better for the movement, so they decided to merge their own.”
IS BIGGER BETTER?
But the NUP folks weren’t just arguing that “bigger is better,” though they did argue for a consolidation of unions along industrial lines. More than that, they were arguing that building enough density to challenge employers within each industry is the key to labor power. Which is why this UNITE/HERE merger is somewhat confusing.
As Jim Michalik, a member of HERE Local 1 in Chicago, asks, “Why do you need someone from a different industry? If there were two competing hotel unions, then we could consolidate our power, both bringing a big bat to the game.”
Wilhelm and Raynor argue that their new, larger union (UNITE HERE will have 440,000 active members) will increase their power in dealing with anti-union employers. It’s true that the new union will now have a bigger pool of resources, financial and otherwise, with which to organize, but they’ll also be organizing in multiple industries, and taking on many more employers.
Anyone who followed the West Coast grocery strike, where the 1.4 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers union got trounced by the grocery companies, knows that size isn’t everything. Michalik says he’s concerned that with the merger, his union will become “more diluted than it already is.”
Aside from hotel and restaurant workers, HERE represents campus clerical and maintenance workers, airport retail workers, and other technical and administrative workers. Aside from its laundry and apparel workers, UNITE represents workers in retail, auto manufacturing, and direct care for the developmentally disabled.
By creating a larger, general union, Wilhelm and Raynor have created the kind of union the NUP claims is part of labor’s problem. If the NUP is solely focused on the growth of its four member unions, other unions may have cause for concern about the possibility of raiding by the NUPers.
MEMBERS IN THE DARK
Leaving the NUP aside, how will this merger affect HERE and UNITE’s members? Jon Palewicz of HERE Local 2 in San Francisco says it’s hard to tell, particularly since “the merger was planned and negotiated in advance and in secret.”
According to Palewicz, a former national leader of the HERE reform group HERETIC, while there was “a story ready for The American Prospect (a national magazine) within a few hours of the merger’s announcement…tons of the unions’ staff and officers-the folks that will have to live the merger and make it work-didn’t know anything about it.”
Palewicz says that the merger “has nothing to do with rank-and-file participation [or] informed consent.” He does not expect union leadership to encourage “rank-and-file discussion and debate about the consequences of this merger, such as how it will affect contracts, pensions, and by-laws.”
Both Palewicz and Michalik note that members will have no vote on the merger, which the unions say is expected to be ratified at a special joint convention this July. They each say this is consistent with HERE’s top-down structure.
If these unions are already undemocratic, as Palewicz and Michalik assert, the merger will only exacerbate that problem. In a general union where power is concentrated at the top, it becomes that much harder for workers in any one division (which was formerly a whole union) to have power over decisions on contracts and organizing drives in their industry.
An example is the merger of the more militant meatcutters union with the more conservative retail clerks when the United Food and Commercial Workers union was formed in 1979. Dissident meatcutters soon found themselves fighting a bureaucracy far removed from their concerns. The merger of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers with the Paperworkers to form PACE is another case in point.
Many reports have focused on the fact that this merger provides UNITE, whose membership has shrunk drastically in recent years, with a growing industry in which to organize, while HERE gets the benefit of UNITE’s considerable financial resources.
Michalik agrees with this assessment, noting, “the likely scenario is that…Raynor simply wants to buy a ready-to-go union.”
SOCIAL MOVEMENT BUSINESS UNIONISM
Wilhelm calls this merger “a non-traditional merger of non-traditional unions,” citing the work both unions have done on behalf of progressive causes, such as immigrant rights, and their involvement in anti-sweatshop campaigns.
This work is certainly non-traditional in the U.S. labor movement, and these leaders’ willingness to reach out to workers that unions have often considered not worth organizing deserves praise. It does not, however, provide them with a free pass to run their unions anti-democratically.
Social movement unionism is not simply the adoption of external progressive politics, or the alignment of unions with activist campaigns, though these are vital.
As long as leaders maintain top-down organizational structures and exclude the rank-and-file from decision-making, they will be disenfranchising those same workers (including immigrants, African-Americans, Latinos, and women) whose causes they champion.