“I never heard people with Ivy League educations insult each other so articulately,” recalled Joe Hansen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union.
Hansen is usually leading negotiations with giant grocery chains and meatpackers. But for the past several months he’s also been trying to mediate a dispute between rival unions and their leaders: Andy Stern (University of Pennsylvania, class of 1971) and Bruce Raynor (Cornell, 1972) of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and John Wilhelm (Yale, 1967) of UNITE HERE. Since late last year, their attention–and that of the broader labor movement–has been diverted by internal squabbles that have erupted into a civil war between former friends and allies. It involves a battle over turf, ego, money, members, strategy, principles and the future of the labor movement.
Hansen met with Stern and Wilhelm on July 31, and he speaks regularly with Raynor. The discussion went well enough that they scheduled another round of face-to-face meetings for mid-August. Hansen thinks a settlement is within reach.
“Then we can all go back to doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” Hansen said. “Organizing workers and getting pro-worker legislation passed in Congress.”
Ask any union official, labor organizer, rank-and-file leader or labor-oriented academic–they’ll all tell you the same thing: this is labor’s moment.
Thanks in part to the labor movement’s efforts last year, unions have an ally in the White House and a Democratic majority in Congress. Long-neglected issues that unions have supported–healthcare reform, immigration reform and especially labor law reform–are on the national agenda. If labor and other liberal groups can help Democrats expand their margin in Congress next year and mobilize to push centrist Democrats in a more progressive direction, America could be in store for the next New Deal. All agree: the stakes are high.
“We’re at the most daunting moment of economic challenge in our lifetime,” says Stern, the president of SEIU, the nation’s second-largest union. “We need to focus all of our energy on organizing workers, mobilizing the public and passing legislation that turns our country in a new direction.”
Over the past decade, labor observers agree, SEIU and UNITE HERE have been two of the most effective unions in terms of expanding membership, winning good contracts, forging alliances with community and religious groups, and helping elect progressive candidates at the local, state and national levels.
Until this past spring, UNITE HERE had roughly 440,000 members, about two-thirds of them in the hotel, hospitality and gambling casino sectors, with most of the others in the garment industry. But in May, Raynor, UNITE HERE’s president, led between 105,000 and 150,000 members, mostly garment workers, out of the union and into a new SEIU affiliate called Workers United (the two sides dispute the number). SEIU represents close to 2 million members in a wide swath of public and private sectors, including hospital and nursing home workers, janitors, security guards and government employees.