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.
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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.
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.