Viewpoint: Pink Sheeting and Harmful Organizing Methods at UNITE HERE
Viewpoints on Pink Sheeting Controversy
This month Labor Notes asked current and former organizers for UNITE HERE to share their experiences inside the union. The hospitality workers union, known for its militant, nationally coordinated Hotel Workers Rising campaign, has been through a lot this year: an internal war which resulted in about a quarter of the union’s members breaking off to follow former President Bruce Raynor into the Service Employees; an ensuing battle against SEIU raids; a new alliance with the insurgent National Union of Healthcare Workers; and a re-affiliation with the AFL-CIO.
At its summer convention, UNITE HERE drafted a new constitution that announced democracy provisions protecting dissenters, reformers, and open debate inside the union.
That debate over the union’s internal culture has broken open around the question of “pink sheeting”—the practice of collecting and using personal information about staffers and workers in organizing drives. Former organizers—some now on the SEIU payroll, others not—say the practices reflect the lack of input and ownership that rank-and-file workers and younger staff have over campaigns and organizing strategy.
UNITE HERE leaders say the practice helps develop deep relationships essential to movement building. They blame enemies of the union—namely SEIU—for misrepresenting the practice to bash the union publicly.
Although pink sheeting is not widely used in the labor movement, the debate has gone beyond the practice itself, to questions of organizing culture and staff-member relations that merit broader discussion.
UNITE HERE is known as a dynamic organizing union that mobilizes its members around effective comprehensive campaigns. But it suffers from a deeply undemocratic decision-making structure that uses abusive methods to recruit and retain low-level staff and members—and to quiet dissent.
We are two former UNITE HERE staffers pushed out for speaking out against a toxic organizing culture. We worked as interns, organizers, and boycott coordinators. Since spring 2008, we’ve seen tactics known as “the game” and “pink sheeting” used as recruiting, motivational, or disciplinary tools in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas among workers, members, and staff.
Six of us from UNITE HERE International’s boycott team resigned last spring after being ostracized for opposing these practices. These tactics, keystones of several locals’ organizing models, continued even after an internal policy forbid them in early 2009.
We feel it is necessary to open a dialogue about these abusive organizing methods and how they undermine the democratic values the union outwardly champions. But some inside Workers United, the UNITE HERE splinter that joined the Service Employees, have cynically manipulated the victims of these methods as part of a scorched-earth attack on UNITE HERE.
MANIPULATION BY SEIU
Then-President Bruce Raynor exploited the controversy around pink sheeting during the 2009 civil war within UNITE HERE. Raynor used a successful pink sheeting grievance by the UNITE-allied staff union as a wedge to recruit workers and staff out of the union.
He diverted UNITE HERE funds to a private consultancy firm and SEIU ally to underwrite full-color mailers about pink sheeting, which were sent to staff and members in early 2009. The mailers reprinted disturbing excerpts from the grievance and listed 30 HERE-side leaders in an attempt to discredit them.
Raynor appropriated pink sheeting to advance his own interests, but he did not manufacture the issue. These practices existed before Raynor was there to exploit them and they reinforce a top-down leadership structure that is hidden from public view.
PINK SHEET IN PRACTICE
An integral part of the UNITE HERE organizing model is developing and using the personal story as a motivational tool. In the locals where we worked, participants in an organizing campaign recounted their histories and traumas with their lead organizers.
This practice, known as pink sheeting, “finding your story,” or “completing a motivation sheet,” was a prerequisite for involvement in union activity. It was also supposed to build relationships between lead organizers and their subordinates.
But we saw upper-level organizers use this information to “push” staff or members when they were uncomfortable with performing tasks, accepting orders, or making personal sacrifices.
Workers out of a hot shop, long-time members, and doe-eyed student radicals alike were instructed in the same doublethink: personal loyalty to your lead was labeled “courage,” while inquiry, even benign curiosity, into your lead’s directives got you branded “inexperienced.” Virtually everyone we worked with was pushed to stop asking so many questions: “you need to learn to trust.”
Lead organizers manage campaigns through a constant cycle of “team meetings” with organizers and member activists. Staffers or members are required to stand up and “self-critique” before their team: give a candid evaluation of their job performance, take responsibility for errors, and publicly discuss the emotional factors that hold them back.
During this process of “group pushes” we saw lead organizers, directors, and co-workers repeatedly interrupt, asking pointed questions and highlighting inaccuracies in the organizer’s responses—or outright challenging the organizer’s honesty. Often, the personal issues were not brought up by the person being “pushed,” but by a lead or co-worker trying to “open them up.”
Over a dozen times in the course of a year, Arlen saw meetings end with the organizer breaking into tears, admitting their “mistake” was a product of fear, a lack of experience, a lack of commitment or dedication, a failure to follow a lead’s orders, an unresolved personal issue—or all of the above.
Greg attended a team meeting in which organizers he’d never worked alongside interrogated him. Why did he try to contradict his lead’s orders? Where had his commitment gone?
Thirty minutes later, his lead asked: “Do you feel abandoned?” Greg asked for clarification. She said: “Well, your Dad’s dead, [an organizer] is gone, [a researcher] is gone, Arlen’s leaving. Do you feel abandoned?”
“Gone” meant “gone from the union,” but Greg was pushed to discuss how he coped with the loss of his father several years earlier. Other organizers peppered him with questions about ways this affected his commitment to union work.
This is “the push” or “the game,” a practice adapted from the United Farm Workers. Labor historians have documented the UFW implosion in the late ’70s, a period that saw the use of group pressure or “breaking sessions” to intimidate individuals into bending to the will of the group or leader.
That implosion led to a migration of volunteers and staff into the broader labor movement. UNITE HERE International and Local 11 in Los Angeles boast an impressive roster of high-ranking ex-UFW directors and organizers.
Around the time that the staff union’s grievance against pink sheeting was resolved, UNITE HERE leaders issued a new policy that expressly forbade “pink sheeting” and “the game.” A January 2009 memo from International Vice President Karl Lechow directed upper-level staff to make all organizers aware of the policy. The new measure ruled out coercive actions against those who refused to disclose personal information.
After Workers United began raiding UNITE HERE shops, Local 11 organizers were warned of a possible lawsuit and instructed to destroy all pink sheets in their possession. It took several weeks to dispose of the filing cabinets and moving boxes full of them, but no one at the local discussed it openly.
Once Workers United began the salvo against pink sheeting, it became impossible to discuss, let alone criticize, these tactics without being labeled a traitor. Organizers who spoke out were “counter-organizers” or “off the program.” This stigma, and a union policy forbidding staff from publicly discussing “internal affairs,” has enforced a code of silence about these practices.
Amid a mass resignation of boycott coordinators, both of us confronted our leads about the silence over ongoing violations of the pink-sheeting policy. Greg’s lead explained that the push and the pink sheet remained important tools which had helped her become the leader she was.
Days after he reported to his national director that the tactics were still being used in organizer meetings, Arlen was removed from his campaign and banned from the Local 11 office. The committee of volunteer activists he had recruited for the campaign was dissolved.
In terms of raising contract standards and fighting the boss, UNITE HERE deserves recognition. But any organization where participants are systematically intimidated into towing a party line—by emotional manipulation—is not democratic.
Likewise, any union where all strategy decisions are made by unelected staff without involvement of workers is not rank and file. These tactics have given workers and staffers the feeling of being engaged, without much decision-making power on campaigns.
There must be space inside UNITE HERE and the larger labor movement for dissent and dialogue—a place to fight against the marginalization of the very people the union claims to champion.