Workers United Finds Membership Divided

More than 30 workers at the Philadelphia Radisson have signed affidavits attesting that they voted to stay in UNITE HERE, despite Workers United claims that workers voted to leave. Photo: UNITE HERE

The 15 regional boards that seceded from UNITE HERE in March to create a new union in partnership with the Service Employees have not exactly made a clean break.

Allies of former UNITE President Bruce Raynor formed Workers United at a March 21 convention in Philadelphia, but not everyone in the city—much less the country—is on board.

Lynne Fox, president of the regional (or joint) board and a vice president of the new union, claims all 9,000 members in Philadelphia became part of Workers United. To prove member support, Fox and joint board staff are holding secret-ballot elections in dozens of shops, giving workers a choice: stay with UNITE HERE, or join the new partnership with SEIU. The premise for the breakaway campaign is member discontent. Still, several stay-or-go votes came weeks after the union’s founding, raising questions about its democratic bona fides.

“They’re acting more like a boss than a union,” said Doris Smith, president of a Philadelphia local representing public school food service workers which has opposed the breakaway union.

Regina James, a cafeteria worker, disagrees. She says UNITE leaders brought steward trainings and the local prospered when the joint board put the HERE local under trusteeship four years ago.

“UNITE HERE wants control of our local, and they’ll go back to using and abusing us again,” she added.

Most members don’t seem much involved. The joint board held a disaffiliation vote in mid-April, attracting 75 votes from 2,400 cafeteria workers. James says the 61-14 result proves workers want out of UNITE HERE.

But Workers United is bogged down with legal challenges and a member revolt within some shops. Hotel workers in the city say that a secret ballot vote to gauge workers’ support was tampered with, a claim the joint board rejects. “UNITE HERE won’t accept the election when it doesn’t go their way,” said Fox.

Workers United claims 150,000 members support the breakaway from the 450,000-strong International, headed by both Raynor and HERE leader John Wilhelm since their unions merged in 2004.

Civil war broke out when UNITE supporters realized that Raynor lacked the votes to remain in power at UNITE HERE’s upcoming convention. Leaders of the regional boards sued for divorce and headed for the door, attempting to take real estate and the Amalgamated Bank—which UNITE brought into the merger. Wilhelm says these assets became the International’s property after the two unions joined forces.

SEIU swooped in, offering to collect limited dues from Workers United members in exchange for organizing and legal support—essentially subsidizing the split. The two unions say they will organize among hotel and gaming workers in key HERE strongholds Las Vegas and Atlantic City, and elsewhere.

Wilhelm has filed suit against the secession attempt, a proceeding that will last for months.




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Meanwhile, a battle for members’ hearts and minds continues. Workers United staff has launched a nationwide campaign using petitions and elections to prove popular support for the split. In New York and Pittsburgh, joint board officials claim overwhelming victories in large hotel locals.

But the breakaway attempt has encountered resistance in Philadelphia, where even joint board leaders were divided on whether or not to split.

The president of Philadelphia’s hotel workers union supports Workers United, citing a more stable financial future with SEIU, but members at the Radisson Hotel have bucked the new union. Corean Holloway, the local vice president, works in laundry at the Radisson, and says workers’ April 1 vote to stay with UNITE HERE was tampered with. The joint board claimed a 42-12 victory, but more than 30 workers at the hotel have since signed affidavits saying they voted to stay with UNITE HERE—a charge Fox calls a “baldfaced lie.”

Holloway says joint board staff told her to warn co-workers they would lose their union contract, pay dues increases, and face layoffs if they didn’t support the new union.

When Workers United officials postponed a scheduled vote at Philadelphia’s Hyatt hotel, workers supporting UNITE HERE gathered dozens of cards in lieu of an election. “People don’t want their dues funding the people trying to break up their union,” said Jamie Hamod, a steward and server.

Aaron Seiz, a host and bargaining committee member, says 112 out of 152 Hyatt workers had already signed a petition to remain with UNITE HERE. Fox doesn’t recognize those petitions, calling instead for a secret-ballot election. UNITE HERE says the elections have no legal bearing.


Valerie Halls, a barista in the Hyatt lobby, calls the Workers United actions a “slap in the face, just two months after winning our contract.” Hyatt employees won a 16-month contract battle in February, while joint board officials were making plans to leave.

Before the split, workers received now-infamous purple flyers urging them to support the new union. After Workers United formed, Halls and others received robocalls and house visits from the union.

The joint board had pulled two of her co-workers off the job months ago. No one knew why until they appeared on house visits targeting workers less involved in the local.

The split from UNITE HERE has been all about speed. Raynor, with SEIU assistance, focused attacks on Wilhelm’s organizing methods, claiming they produced results too slowly. Their secession campaign was lightning quick. In a matter of weeks, Workers United had pinned its gray logo to the wall of a Philadelphia hotel ballroom, as the June UNITE HERE convention loomed.

In the stampede to leave, Philadelphia workers say the democratic process has been trampled, and many resent being consulted about the fate of their union, after the fact.

“This was decided over a month ago by Lynne Fox, before we were ever asked,” Hamod said.

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Anonymous (not verified) | 06/10/09

Many good points made by both sides. I would say that mergers of 2 unions are often very difficult. The problem with the merger between UNITE and HERE is that the agreement was flawed. One of our country's founding principles was that there should not be a tyranny of the majority. Hasn't always worked but........ Raynor negotiated a bad deal for his former union thinking that he was the smartest guy in the room and would be able to maintain control over the merged unions. The only fair thing would be for a a divorce to take place and that both sides go their own way. If UNITE wants to be swallowed up by SEIU then so be it -- they may be even sorrier about that in a few years.

anonymous (not verified) | 05/16/09

I'm a longtime organizer (coordinator level) with seiu. Whatever other flaws the organization has had, the important thing for me has always been the organizing. SEIU has long been the only union with a program and a strategy that was able to win big-time. But I, and almost everyone I work with, can by now admit that the senior leadership has by now pretty much walked away from their former commitment to real organizing.

Some people read sinister motives into Andy's increasingly bizarre actions, but I work with him and I almost wish that were the case! It's much simpler: it's, like, 70% personal vanity, and 30% inattention to his actual executive responsibilities. As long as he and Anna are getting their names in media, they're happy. It literally is that simple with them.

A lot of us true believers started to lose faith when seiu tried to act as a company union in (an actually pretty serious fight in) puerto rico re the teachers union. The CA s***-show burned out a few more people's commitment- UHW, Tyrone, the train wreck that is the merged public sector locals, etc. The silly about-face cave-in on the cna's jurisdiction demands in order to free up more scarce bucks to fund dave's pathetic failure in oakland. And we all now know change to win was an epic misuse of cred, power, money, momentum and time. Laying off hard-working and talented international organizers just because they're uur while we keep anelle and rickman (who literally stole from members by our own account!) on payroll. Etc. Any one or two of these mistakes would be acceptable imperfections in the life of a big organization, but all of them together its getting pretty hard for us all to ignore the reality of what we've become.

And then, raiding HERE, just crosses every last line. The bozos at property services who haven't been able to get an election agreement in years cover up their failure in the slimiest way imagineable--- by coming up with a strategy to smash and grab HERE's newer food service members during their divorce. Andy approves because hey who wouldn't like to own a bank, and woodruff approves because it adds a new jurisdiction for him to cut deals for fake membership numbers to pretend like we're still on track to meet organizing goals. Get used to this, kids, because these geniuses' next great idea is raiding the aft and supporting charter school vouchers so we can 'organize' the charter schools. or maybe try to take retail food from ufcw. hurray for industrial organizing, right.

My colleagues at seiu used to be mostly motivated by their commitment to a better world. I'd say at this point 30% are looking for a different job, 60% are retreating into cynical careerism, and about 10% truly believe in what they do. Just a rough sampling of my peers, co-workers and friends, maybe its different on other teams. what an embarrassing end for what was once seemed the most promising way to rebuild america's unions. All these years, these shift-changes, these house-calls, all a waste.

uniteheremember (not verified) | 04/28/09

So the public employees SEIU didnt bother to organize cant handle the truth?

UH Philly (not verified) | 04/17/09

I have been working here in Philly for UNITE HERE for a while. I saw everything happen before my eyes.

The truth is that "Workers United" is not a democratic, grassroots, rank-and-file movement. In Philadelphia the staff were told what was happening one week before the vote (the vote occurred March 7th, and the staff meeting was Feb. 28th). Many of the members have yet to be asked about it. Lynne Fox, manager of the Philly Joint Board formerly with UNITE HERE, and her top people made this decision and the staff's new job is to make it happen. The members are only being brought in when they have to be, because the model the joint board always operated on limits the input of members to the greatest degree possible.

The leadership of the joint board have long believed their positions are theirs and belong to them, and they believe they owe nothing to anyone most especially the members. They view themselves as the labor royalty of Philadelphia, and act accordingly.

I believe a shop by shop vote or petition drive would be a fantastic way for our members to voice their concerns, and make a real democratic union happen.

The major difference b/w HERE and SEIU/Workers United is that HERE recognizes that democracy and rank-and-file militancy is a process that must be developed over a long time with great attention to the relationships of the people involved. SEIU seems to think democracy is a buzz word and that militancy can be replaced by PR machines who control public's information in the media. Which one do you think will be more successful in building a movement where workers are actively involved and actively run their own unions?

Democracy is a process, a process that is forever ongoing. Only an organization with a desire to sit through the nitty gritty with every member to build that member's understanding of rank-and-file activism will actually succeed in building the real union democracy we are all talking about.

Workers United is just another creation from another ploy by union officers to augment salaries and insulate themselves from accountability to their membership. Far from being the grassroots rebirth of the labor movement, it very well might kill the most democratic, vibrant, and large grassroots union in our nation's recent history.

I have been encouraged by the workers of locals 634 and 54 standing up to take back control of their union. The members run both locals, and i am proud to be at their beck-and-call.

John (not verified) | 04/18/09

The real deal in Philly sounds real nice, but it ain't working. It's real easy to spew theory on how democracy works, but the labor movement is getting our butts kicked and all you can do is say lets keep doing the same thing that hasn't been working. What's your plan for growing the labor movement? It's like everyone wants to bash SEIU but no one has a plan to stop the decline in union members. Everyone keeps saying "let's keep doing the same thing," but at what point will you admit that it ain't working. The truth is, you can examine ANY democracy and you'll find that a handful of people are really driving the process. That's life, get over yourself and do something to increase the power of working people instead of supporting our extinction.

Chris K (not verified) | 04/23/09

But what John really doesn't say is what SEIU is doing differently to concretely build real power and democracy (the two are fundamentally linked after all) for working people. Given its history of attacks on other unions (CNA, UNITE HERE, EAA, the Puerto Rican teachers, and several other smaller regional unions) and its trumpeting of short-cut sweetheart-like political, organizing and bargaining deals, that what the real difference is something qualitatively worse on that front--even inside the parameters of the clearly-failing track record of US business unionism.

Leaving aside abstractions, SEIU's recent, documented raids into union-affiliated hotels actively undermines the ability of workers--in a year when all the major hotel contracts are expiring--to fight as effectively as it did in 2006 with Hotel Workers Rising. It is a fact on the ground right now that SEIU (through its proxy WU) is posing itself as the softy sweetheart alternative to UH as a bargaining representative at newly-organized hotels. Boo hiss.

SEIU's International leadership has gone from being problematic to being a straight-out problem for the rest of us in the labor movement.

Anonymous (not verified) | 04/22/09

No one is saying "let's keep doing the same thing." That sounds like some bullshit SEIU-line that's trying to convince us that we need to accept Stern-style corporate unionism or else. From where I stand, HERE/UNITE HERE has been successful at keeping itself relevant and growing (both in terms of members and standards) by eschewing the old servicing-oriented style of unionism and by organizing and building workers' capacity to fight.

Anonymous (not verified) | 04/17/09

earning their right to democracy through proving their "understanding" to an organizer. I guess that just about says it all.

John (not verified) | 04/17/09

You know how they always say "follow the money?" In this case, you should follow the dues money. The essence of a union's power is numbers. The numbers to vote, the numbers to take action, the numbers to contribute money. This whole debate is moot if your union keeps loosing members year after year. How about looking at each of the union's membership numbers for the past 10 or 20 years. The whole labor movement is about to be eliminated in our country. So who exactly is the one union that is effectively countering the complete elimination of power by working people? Compare the membership numbers and you'll see that SEIU is doing something dramatically different. All the rest of you want to keep doing the same thing you've been doing for decades while completely ignoring the fact that it ain't working. I think that's the definition of insanity.

Gurley (not verified) | 04/23/09

Hey John:

I am listening to the members from SEIU and UNITE/HERE. I am a member of SEIU and I find your comment DIRECTLY FROM THE SEIU PUBLIC RELATIONS PLAYBOOK!

The union's strength is in its members! NOT IN THEIR MONEY!

I find that your post was offensive to any union member - for you very succinctly stated: we like the money from the members! something the right wing always shouts at labor. And, trying to make it sound real by using "ain't" at the end was truly offensive, i.e. you are certainly not a union member that believes in building power through its members - but you do like the money and make no pretense about it.

And, other unions are looking at what's happening - please, get another line from the SEIU public relations handbook. You do not represent anyone but yourself.

Gurley - as in Elizabeth Gurley Flynn - although I can bet that you do not know who she was.

Vote (not verified) | 04/17/09

We voted for the merger at the last convention. Why are the powers that be in such a hurry to bypass the members and I do mean members vote for their choice at the June convention. The members pay the officers salaries and the members are supposed to dictate policy not the other way around. To try to pull out joint boards to avoid a legitimate convention to determine members choice is fraud and union unconstitutional. Why is the splinter group so afraid of the June 2009 convention? COULD IT BE THAT THEIR FULL OF BALONEY AND THEY ARE JUST AFRAID OF BEING UNEMPLOYED? Have a legitimate election with legitimate votes from the members concerning affiliation. The SEIU sounds like a dictator regime with their tactics. Go ahead and vote for them if you do not want any rights as a union member to express a vote for your own opinion is the right of union membership. It is nothing more than a power play for dollars by Stern. How disgusting. Go hang out with Bernie Madoff

Anonymous (not verified) | 04/17/09

The old UNITE members knew their voices wouldn't be heard or respected in June by the HERE majority. So why not just let them go?
Hold that election you want shop by shop with independent oversight? and then I'd say you were on to something.
HERE brought the members; UNITE brought the cash. Why can't everyone just call it a mistake and leave with what they brought?

Anonymous (not verified) | 04/17/09

How many of the 300,000 UNITE HERE members left behind are being given a democratic choice between the two unions?
Answer? 0
Instead, if any of those shops want out of UNITE HERE or even the opportunity to fairly weigh both sides they have to wait for their current contracts to expire and then go through the turmoil of a card drive.

There is another possibility here that Labor Notes seems patently determined to dismiss without a moment of consideration --
that Workers United is an exciting opportunity to build a new democratic union for hospitality workers fed up with years of neglect and corruption in UNITE HERE locals.

I know. I know. It just can't be so because the devil Andy Stern is involved. Yeah, well, if Wilhelm is such a champion of democratic unionism maybe he should call for an independent agency to conduct shop by shop elections through the entire union and have the members decide. Is anyone out there even curious if the MEMBERSHIP and unorganized workers in the sector would like a choice?

Labor Notes is missing the true labor story of the year -- union members standing up to both their employers and the union that sleeps with the boss to demand the representation they deserve.

Anonymous (not verified) | 04/17/09

HERE is in bed with the boss? I think you meant Raynor.

*cough* ARAMARK *cough*

Anonymous (not verified) | 05/01/09


Get your Local 5 unionbusting scab staffers (Hortencia Armendariz, Nate Selzer, Rahul Varshney, Al Chavez, etc, etc) out of California, and then maybe you can legitimately complain about whatever is going on in Arizona.

SEIU is going broke by unionbusting NUHW - clean up your own yard and then maybe others won't litter in it?

Anonymous (not verified) | 04/22/09

What was that about throwing stones in glass houses? Seems to me that Workers United/SEIU has been throwing around anti-union propaganda since this whole thing started. See and