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Divorce--Union Style | The Nation

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Divorce--Union Style

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Wilhelm claims that Raynor used funds he still controlled from UNITE HERE's treasury to recruit its members to another union. Wilhelm also claims that under the new Workers United banner, SEIU has sought to recruit workers at hotels and casinos in Phoenix; San Antonio; Erie, Pennsylvania; and other cities where UNITE HERE had been organizing employees. In several cases, he says, SEIU had already pressured management to agree to a card-check neutrality agreement. In addition, Wilhelm says, forty to eighty SEIU organizers have been soliciting UNITE HERE members at fifteen airports who are employed by Delaware North, a food and beverage operation, asking them to sign "decertification" petitions and leave UNITE HERE.

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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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Stern views the battle as a tug of war between different factions of UNITE HERE for the loyalty of its members, but he admits that some of the attacks on Wilhelm's division "went too far." He says that SEIU has ended its harassment of UNITE HERE workers in an effort to end the battle. Wilhelm claims that it is still going on.

In retaliation, UNITE HERE engaged in harassment of Workers United. Wilhelm wrote letters to employers urging them not to negotiate new contracts with Workers United locals and not to forward dues to those locals. In the Bay Area, laundry and food services company Aramark, citing Wilhelm's letter, has refused to start contract talks with its unionized workers at three of its industrial laundry plants, claiming that it doesn't want to get in the middle of an intra-union dispute. Workers United claims that in late July, UNITE HERE organizers were still making house calls to workers and leafleting at laundry factory gates almost daily.

Maria Munoz, a union shop steward who folds bags at a 120-worker laundry plant in Los Angeles owned by Angelica Corporation, said that in June a UNITE HERE organizer was leafleting outside the factory, urging workers to renounce their membership in Workers United. "She even visited me at home and kept calling me," said Munoz. "I told her we're not members of [UNITE HERE] Local 11. We're members of [Workers United] Local 52. I asked her to leave me alone, and she finally did."

The charges and countercharges between SEIU and UNITE HERE have been flying through e-mails, press releases, open letters and websites for the past few months. Each side has lined up supporters among unions, civil rights groups, clergy and academics, repeating the accusations and escalating the rhetoric.

But in recent weeks, a growing number of labor leaders have started to speak out, calling on Stern, Raynor and Wilhelm to end the internal fighting for the sake of the broader labor movement. The tone of neutrality has begun to shift, too. Even some of Stern's long-term allies within the labor and academic communities say that he "crossed the line" by siding with one faction in an intra-union dispute and bringing another union's members into SEIU. More than 200 academics signed a letter to SEIU's executive board criticizing the union's "concerted efforts to undermine UNITE HERE." (Disclosure: I signed a version of this letter.)

A controversial figure in the labor world, Stern is perhaps the best known and most powerful union president in the country since the United Auto Workers' Walter Reuther. Stern has a close relationship with President Barack Obama, as evidenced by his frequent visits to the White House, and he is playing a leading role in labor's efforts to enact healthcare reform, the Employee Free Choice Act and immigration reform.

Stern has increased SEIU's visibility and established what he calls "our brand," including getting all the union's locals--once a crazy quilt of different names--to adopt the same purple colors for their T-shirts and caps. Under Stern, SEIU has spent its sizable war chest putting organizers into political campaigns and providing contributions to Democrats. This political clout has helped SEIU win contracts for many government employees, a significant proportion of its membership.

As SEIU's organizing director and, since 1996, as its president, Stern has expanded the union's membership by organizing workers and by absorbing smaller unions. Indeed, he had talked to Raynor and Wilhelm about bringing UNITE and HERE into SEIU long before the 2004 merger.

But Stern's tactics--including the recent ousting of the leadership of a large Northern California local, his battles with the California Nurses Association and his overtures to Wal-Mart--have alienated some onetime allies. Because of his high profile and, in recent months, his role in the UNITE HERE dispute, some critics call Stern "imperialistic."

Others, however, argue that the conflict is over differences in organizing strategy--portraying SEIU's approach as top-down and UNITE HERE's as bottom-up. There is some truth to this distinction, but it is also misleading. For example, SEIU's famous Justice for Janitors campaign, as well as its efforts among security guards, were models of rank-and-file bottom-up organizing.

In July, in a direct rebuke to Stern's role in the UNITE HERE dispute, the presidents of twenty-seven national unions signed a statement "in solidarity with Unite Here" that pledged to "support Unite Here, both materially and morally, against a raid by any union against Unite Here members, or workers in Unite Here's industry jurisdictions." They also promised to support UNITE HERE in its fights with employers, especially if an employer were to force a strike or lockout.

Wilhelm says he's prepared to do battle "on the ground" through membership organizing drives if Workers United tries to recruit workers on UNITE HERE's turf. He's also willing, he adds, to fight through the courts, even if it takes years, to get back what he considers the union's financial assets, especially Amalgamated Bank.

Interviewed separately, Wilhelm, Stern and Raynor all agree that the lawsuits, legal fees, negative publicity and other aspects of the conflict are wasteful and should come to an end.

Stern and Raynor want Wilhelm to agree to binding arbitration to settle the jurisdictional and financial issues. But Wilhelm says, "If someone breaks into your house and steals your belongings, and then gets caught, you don't arbitrate how much he has to return to its rightful owner." Wilhelm says he's ready to negotiate with Stern and Raynor but that he's not willing to put his union's fate in the hands of a third-party arbitrator with final authority.

Hansen, the well-respected UFCW president, brought Raynor, Wilhelm and Stern together in March and April for a series of meetings to resolve the dispute. Initially Hansen had hoped UNITE HERE could stay together, but he soon realized that what both sides needed was a clean break to dissolve the merger.

After listening to both sides and talking with leaders from other unions, Hansen presented the three men with a list of recommendations, hoping to broker a deal. Hansen called on the two sides to agree to split the core jurisdictions. The hotel and gaming industry would stay with UNITE HERE. Apparel, laundries and other industries would go to SEIU/Workers United.

Hansen recommended dividing the responsibility for organizing food service workers--employed at convention centers, airports and office buildings, dominated by several national companies like Aramark, Sodexo and Compass. HERE brought about 60,000 food service workers into the merger, but UNITE HERE added new members, many through joint campaigns with SEIU. Hansen suggested that UNITE HERE maintain the food service jurisdiction in California, Chicago, New York and British Columbia, and agree to give SEIU the franchise elsewhere, even though both unions will be organizing employees of the same firms in different cities.

Neither side would be happy with that scenario, but Hansen thinks that it's a starting point for reaching a settlement.

The biggest obstacle to an agreement is the division of UNITE HERE's financial resources. Hansen proposed that SEIU/Workers United own the Amalgamated Bank and the former UNITE HERE headquarters building in New York City. In exchange for giving up those assets, Hansen said, "there's got to be a substantial sum of money that allows UNITE HERE to run its union." The size of that check may determine how quickly, or even whether, Hansen can forge a compromise that both sides can live with.

"If we can get down to that number," Hansen said hopefully, "we've got a solution."

Although the talks broke down in May, Hansen was able to get both sides together again in late July. They've scheduled another meeting for mid-August.

"This has gotten too emotional," Hansen said. "The bitterness between the two sides is terrible. Meanwhile, workers' lives are being screwed up. The corporations will take full advantage of this [split] and exploit them. The workers these two unions represent--and the unorganized workers they should be organizing--need the help."

"These union fights can only help business," explained Lowell Turner, a labor studies professor at Cornell University. "When your enemies are fighting each other instead of fighting you, you're in good shape. That's the way it looks to the Chamber of Commerce."

"The sooner labor stops putting millions of dollars into fighting each other," said Turner, "the sooner they can put those resources where they should go--into organizing and political battles."

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