Divorce--Union Style | The Nation


Divorce--Union Style

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Raynor claimed that Wilhelm's division was spending tens of millions of dollars without significant results. He thought Wilhelm's progress in adding new members was too slow and that his organizers spent too much time developing rank-and-file worker committees in a handful of hotels and casinos rather than waging campaigns against entire chains.

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Peter Dreier
Peter Dreier teaches Politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His...

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In fact, UNITE HERE did make fitful progress in expanding its membership. Following the merger, according to Wilhelm, UNITE HERE organized almost 14,000 workers in ninety-two hotels. It increased the union's density to about 20 percent among hotel workers (much higher in some cities), making inroads in cities like Phoenix and Houston that had no union hotels. The union also expanded its hold in the casino sector, reaching about half of all employees.

In many situations, UNITE HERE won victories by mobilizing support from community and religious allies, putting pressure on employers to recognize the union. UNITE HERE also retooled its strategy to focus on winning contracts with national chains like Hilton rather than negotiate separately with hundreds of local hotels. According to the union, UNITE HERE represents 37 percent of Hilton employees and 40 percent of Starwood hotel workers. A source who knows both union leaders well says that Raynor began going behind Wilhelm's back, meeting with hotel owners and challenging Wilhelm's role as head of the union's hospitality wing. "Bruce was president, so he could do that," the source observed, but it violated the spirit of the merger. "That ruffled the feathers of the HERE folks."

Longtime staffers for both unions, and other observers, acknowledge that the two organizations had very different cultures. One high-level staffer in Raynor's circle called the marriage "a bad fit from the very beginning."

In many cities, HERE locals joined forces with UNITE locals, merging office space, sharing their treasuries and waging campaigns under the new banner. But the former UNITE central staff remained in their Manhattan headquarters, and former HERE core staff continued working out of their Washington office.

The marriage lasted for five years. Because HERE came into the merger with more members, it had more votes on UNITE HERE's governing board, making it likely that Wilhelm loyalists could outvote Raynor on various matters and, if need be, oust Raynor as president. Worried that he might lose his position, Raynor began saying privately, then publicly last year, that the merger hadn't worked. In May, Raynor precipitated what he calls a "divorce." He resigned as UNITE HERE president and brought his wing of the union into the waiting arms of Andy Stern. Raynor's Workers United faction is now a subsidiary of SEIU. (Some former UNITE members, mostly in New England, opted to stay with UNITE HERE.)

Anyone who has gone through a messy divorce, or has seen close friends or relatives engage in a hostile battle over the custody of children and financial assets, will recognize what UNITE HERE is going through. Divorces are even messier when there's a third person involved, and in this love-hate triangle, the "other man" is the powerful SEIU and its president.

At its July convention in Chicago, Wilhelm was elected president of UNITE HERE, minus the members Raynor brought into SEIU. Wilhelm isn't happy about losing those members and their dues, but he's mostly angry about two other issues--UNITE HERE's financial assets and protection of his union's core jurisdiction, the hospitality industry.

As he was preparing to leave as UNITE HERE president, Raynor sought to arrange for Workers United to maintain control over UNITE HERE's financial assets, including Amalgamated Bank and its strike fund. Wilhelm claims that what happened isn't a divorce but a "robbery." He says that Raynor, with Stern's support, split the union in violation of its bylaws, taking most of UNITE HERE's assets, including $23 million of the strike fund, which Raynor had invested in the bank. According to Wilhelm, Raynor tied up most of UNITE HERE's $333 million in assets, leaving Wilhelm with only $4 million to keep his union afloat. These resources legally still belong to UNITE HERE, Wilhelm says.

Raynor counters that UNITE had brought those assets into the merger and that they belong to its members, who are now part of SEIU/Workers United. "These are the assets built from the sweat and savings of hundreds of thousands of garment workers over eighty years," says Raynor, who believes they should belong to the union that represents the next generation of clothing workers. He also says that the members who left UNITE HERE had the legal right to do so, citing federal laws that allow workers to disaffiliate from a union.

Raynor's critics question why a declining clothing workers union should keep everything its previous and older members amassed, when those resources could be used to build a union with a more promising future. Raynor says that those assets will be used to organize workers in the commercial laundry and food service sectors, where both Workers United and UNITE HERE have made inroads among mostly immigrant employees.

Raynor and Wilhelm are now the principals in a lawsuit over these resources, a legal conflict that could take years to resolve.

Equally contentious is the battle over union jurisdiction. To some labor activists and their academic allies, Stern, with Raynor's collaboration, committed several cardinal sins in labor circles--trying to steal another union's members, interfering with another union's organizing drives and competing for new members on another union's turf.

Soon after Raynor left UNITE HERE, Workers United began aggressively recruiting UNITE HERE members in several cities, including Detroit and Los Angeles. Workers United sent them fliers in the mail and made live and automated phone calls to their homes, attacking Wilhelm and UNITE HERE, and encouraging them to join the new subsidiary of SEIU.

Angela Reid, a bartender at the Glendale Hilton Hotel near Los Angeles and a loyal member of Local 11, one of UNITE HERE's most militant and successful locals, remembers getting a phone call at home at 10 in the morning.

"I work late, so I was still sleeping," she says.

The caller identified himself as being "from your union." He told Reid that members aren't happy with Wilhelm, that Local 11 leaders don't care about the members and that they need new leadership. And he urged her to vote against a proposed dues increase to expand the strike fund in anticipation of upcoming contract talks.

"I got angry," says the 30-year-old Reid, a union activist. "I told him, 'What you guys are doing is terrible. You should be ashamed of yourselves. Don't call my home again.' Then I hung up." For three more weeks, she got at least ten robocalls at her home and on her cellphone, all with the same message.

She also received several leaflets in the mail accusing Local 11 of ignoring workers' grievances and "actively discouraging workers from supporting the Employee Free Choice Act." The leaflets also accused Wilhelm of "mismanagement," urged members to "tell your local union leaders to support an end to the merger" and to vote against a dues increase, and directed workers to a website that asked them to "send greedy union leaders a message."

"I got so mad I ripped them up and threw them in the trash," recalls Reid.

At work, her fellow members told her that they'd gotten the same calls, some of them in Spanish. "I tried to explain to them what was going on. We'd only been union for less than a year. The calls and leaflets were confusing people."

"Look, thanks to Local 11 we have a great contract," Reid says. "It took us over three years to win it, but we did it. They trained us to help ourselves, to be leaders. We got a big raise. We have free family healthcare and paid vacations. Since we got a contract, management is afraid to harass us like they used to. They don't step on us anymore."

"I have nothing against SEIU," says Reid. "They do great things with janitors and nurses and other healthcare workers. That's what they should be doing. But they have no business in our business. They're not hotel workers. I don't want to wear a [SEIU] purple shirt. I want to wear [UNITE HERE's] red."

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