There are bigger American unions, but none that are feistier organizers than HERE (hotel and restaurant workers) and UNITE (historically garment and textile workers). So when UNITE president Bruce Raynor and HERE president John Wilhelm announced plans in late February to merge their unions, it was not surprising that they said they intended to organize workers on a far grander scale together than they had separately. The merger could indeed spark much-needed growth of private-sector unions (down last year to representing 8.2 percent of the private work force), building on the growing tendency of unions to work in concert as they face tougher, more global employers. “Neither of these unions has to merge,” Raynor said. “We’re both unions with solid organizing programs, both well respected and secure. The question is: Are we bigger, better, stronger together? The answer is yes.”

Over the past decade UNITE’s core apparel and textile industries have lost 800,000 jobs, mainly to imports and relocation of work overseas. But the union has successfully organized industrial laundries and retail distribution centers and recently returned to its old base in retail stores (including an organizing drive at the cheap-chic Swedish firm, H&M). It’s also a well-endowed union that even owns a $4 billion bank. On the other hand, HERE is a relatively poor union hurt by decline in the hospitality business–hotels, casinos, airports and food services–since 9/11. But most of its core jobs can’t go overseas, even though the once decentralized industries are increasingly controlled by a few global, often foreign-owned, multinationals (for example, Aramark, Sodexho and Compass dominate the global food service industry and are expanding into other services). HERE organized vigorously until recently, but it has not had the resources to take full advantage of its opportunities, including many untapped agreements to keep hotel owners neutral during organizing drives.

Both unions disproportionately organize women, especially recent immigrants and people of color, to raise living standards in low-wage industries. Raynor and Wilhelm are both Ivy League graduates who came out of political movements of the 1960s and made their mark in organizing–Raynor in the South, Wilhelm in the West (mainly Las Vegas), so their unions enjoy complementary regional strengths. The merger will also permit grander projects by combining staff and drawing money from administrative savings and UNITE’s regional bodies, which control half the union’s financial resources. “The need for unions to have the size and scale necessary to challenge the globalized companies we face is great,” Wilhelm said, “but I also think the need for unions that want to contribute to redefining the labor movement to work together grows bigger every day.”

Last summer Wilhelm and Raynor were among the five union leaders, including the Laborers’ Terry O’Sullivan, the Service Employees’ Andy Stern and–odd man out–the Carpenters’ John McCarron, who formed the New Unity Partnership. “The NUP core purpose is to find joint campaigns where people work together about growth,” Stern said, adding that one target for the group could be real estate companies that affect conditions for construction, hotel and building service workers and also rely on investments from workers’ pension funds, providing unions with leverage over them.

“The whole world has changed, and we’re operating with structures created in 1955″ when the AFL and CIO merged, Stern said. “If we don’t change, we’re going to fail workers and not maximize the limited strength we have.” NUP leaders argue that labor should consolidate into ten to twenty big unions, instead of nearly seventy now, with clearly focused industrial strategies. After working together on HERE’s contract fight with Yale this past fall, Raynor and Wilhelm began talking about a possible merger into a 440,000-member UNITE HERE, hoping to set an example for other unions. But Stern argues that cooperation in many forms is needed immediately and can’t wait for mergers.

NUP isn’t alone in talking about new alliances: Nineteen unions (including the Laborers) that formed the Alliance for Economic Justice and backed Dick Gephardt’s presidential candidacy are exploring new ways to cooperate on organizing and political issues–especially jobs, healthcare and trade. Recently the Steelworkers and PACE (an earlier merger of paper and chemical workers), which had shared ideas on political and workplace-safety plans, announced a strategic alliance.

Unions are adapting internally as well: HERE has been negotiating local hotel contracts to move toward a common national expiration date that will provide clout with increasingly global chains. Many observers believe that the long strike by Southern California grocery workers this winter suffered its profound setback in part because workers were fighting regionally against powerful national employers.

These institutional realignments of unions are often interpreted as a challenge to the AFL-CIO, since some union leaders are frustrated that the federation has not done more to boost organizing. But at this point NUP is intended as a supplement, not an alternative, to the AFL-CIO. Stern argues that there’s a need for a vast new range of vehicles in addition to the federation, including global alliances and joint bargaining groups, to bring together workers who face common employers or industries. “If you’re going to have multiple unions, you should have a singular strategy,” he said, arguing that workers in different unions–like the roughly fifteen unions representing drivers for Laidlaw, the nation’s largest school bus contractor–should be able to vote on whether they all want to organize or bargain together.

Although American unions are weakened because they are so fragmented, mergers or industrial realignments alone are no cure. Whether they merge or find more varied ways to cooperate, unions need more focused and large-scale organizing, broader alliances, consistent progressive politics and greater involvement of members. Critics worry that the NUP may be too willing to compromise with centrist or conservative politicians or employers to boost organizing, and that it pushes centralization at the expense of union democracy. Indeed, one of union organizers’ most powerful arguments with hesitant recruits is that the union is theirs, a message that is essential for organizing a better-educated work force. And as unions argue that workers deserve a greater voice at work and in society, they must also champion a voice for workers in their own unions–including in the development of new strategies like the NUP. In response to this concern, Stern points out that democracy should be “an ingredient, not a panacea,” in a strategy for labor’s future, adding that workers join unions to create the strength to win gains like healthcare, not for democratic processes as an end in themselves.

These issues will be dormant while labor is united in the fight against Bush, but with AFL-CIO president John Sweeney’s term ending in 2005, there will be heated debate over not just the leadership of the AFL-CIO but also the structure and direction of the labor movement. Whether or not Wilhelm is a candidate for the federation presidency, the merger of UNITE HERE raises many key strategic issues for labor. “If we’re going to keep any notion of a middle class alive in North America, it’s got to be by making good jobs out of those service sector jobs that can’t be moved,” Wilhelm said. “At the same time we’ve got to engage in a serious way the struggle about what globalization is going to mean. So I think the merger of these two unions is extremely timely.” So is the debate about labor’s future.