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.
Read another viewpoint from Arlen Jones and Greg Hoffman.
UNITE HERE is an organizing union that fights hard for its members and helps them become leaders on the shop floor and in their communities.
I became a labor activist 13 years ago after I had to take my little girl to the emergency room. As a young father, I worried about whether she would live, while I calculated how to pay the medical bills. It was this experience and the deep love I have for my daughter that drove me to organize my first union as a construction worker.
I have grown in the labor movement. And I have worked for UNITE HERE for 10 years now, motivated by my co-workers and directors, all of whom are as committed to making my workplace a fair one as they are to winning justice for hotel room attendants and casino and food service workers. In all the struggles in which I have been involved, victorious or not, it was the relationships that we built with each other and with members that carried us through.
‘DEBATE’ IS SMEAR ATTEMPT
While UNITE HERE supervisors are not above reproach, there is a reason that “pink sheeting,” the supposed attempt to manipulate staff or members into unwillingly divulging personal experiences, has become a media issue.
The evidence shows that Bruce Raynor and his allies actually drafted plans to use the bad experiences of a few individuals (who worked in a very large union with several autonomous locals) to tar all of UNITE HERE and its leaders.
I do not doubt that some ex-staff members may feel angry, or that some of them felt uncomfortable with our organizing methods. UNITE HERE aspires to treat workers as full, complex human beings, and we develop real relationships with them. I believe in open and reasoned conversation about how workers find it within themselves to become leaders and how we become better organizers.
But unfortunately, the pink-sheeting debate, filled as it is with hyperbolic accusations of cult behavior and mental torture, is not that conversation.
STAFF UNION MANIPULATED
Instead this “debate” is one part of a wholesale endeavor by Workers United-SEIU (WU-SEIU) leaders like Bruce Raynor to smear our union, with the unfortunate participation of our previous staff union, the Federation of Union Representatives (FOUR), and some ex-staff. Even assuming that ex-staff and FOUR stewards have only the best intentions, the evidence shows that Workers United leaders counted on manipulating FOUR into playing a key part in creating a pink-sheeting scandal.
In 2006 FOUR, then the union for UNITE HERE staff, filed a grievance about pink sheeting. As general president of UNITE HERE, Raynor never settled the grievance nor clarified the union’s policy on the matter. The grievance was finally used by Raynor and his allies in 2009 as they prepared to attack the HERE side of the union and begin raids on UNITE HERE shops.
In fall 2008, in a written plan to steal UNITE HERE assets and get rid of HERE staff, they identified “FOUR as an ally and key communication vehicle” for the UNITE-side message. In the same document they included “legal action” on the “pink slip” [sic].
In another document Raynor allies planned a “pink sheet investigation,” to happen prior to calls and mailers to HERE-side members. In February 2009, Raynor—still president of UNITE HERE—demanded a full investigation into pink sheeting, ignoring President John Wilhelm’s attempt to create a clear policy about it.
Two mailers were sent to UNITE HERE staff members from an anonymous “Committee to Stop the Pink Sheet.” A recent mailer bears an address very similar to the one on UNITE HERE-bashing purple mailers sent to members.
Unwittingly or not, FOUR and some ex-staffers have carried out what WU-SEIU leaders planned. FOUR was and is a good ally for Workers United: the staff union remained quiet when UNITE joint boards attempted to fire HERE-side staffers (who were FOUR members) when the Raynor faction first put its plans into motion. But it did send out angry emails about pink sheeting.
Indeed, FOUR, which for many months represented the staff of both UNITE HERE and WU-SEIU, continued to make pink sheeting an issue, thereby losing the support of UNITE HERE staff members.
With FOUR acting more in accordance with the wishes of Workers United leaders than with those of its own members, UNITE HERE staff decertified FOUR and founded their own union, the Union of UNITE HERE Staff (UUHS).
Even now FOUR stewards continue to publicize pink sheeting, although they no longer represent staff members who work for the union that allegedly commits it.
I am not aware of any current UNITE HERE staff who think pink sheeting is a real issue—either important or widespread enough—for us to pursue. Nor have I seen abuses like those claimed. Most of us, however, are clear about how the allegations of pink sheeting have been used against UNITE HERE. Eighty-eight percent of the staff signed on to UUHS’s open-letter response to a New York Times article about the practice.
I believe that a strong staff union like UUHS will challenge specific abuses in a healthy way, hold our colleagues and directors to high standards, and strengthen UNITE HERE while we help ensure that it is a vibrant and fair workplace.
Chuck Hendricks is a 10-year organizer for UNITE HERE, a former rank-and-file member of Painters Local 1, and the elected Midwest representative for UUHS.