At the very moment that organized labor stands a chance to win major gains in Washington–such as passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, the most important labor legislation in decades–its attention is being diverted by escalating conflicts within its ranks. These include not only SEIU’s much-publicized showdown with the United Healthcare Workers-West local in California but a bitter fight among the highly regarded leaders of the merged UNITE HERE.

Prospects looked bright in 2004 for the marriage of UNITE, a union of garment and textile workers, and HERE, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union. Globalization was wiping out much of UNITE’s terrain, but the union had money in the bank (and even an actual bank, Amalgamated), with assets of $300 million to $500 million. On the other hand, HERE’s industries–hotels, gambling, food–were growing fast, but despite having more members, the union had less than a tenth of UNITE’s wealth.

Both unions and their well-educated leaders had reputations as tenacious organizers–Bruce Raynor of UNITE in the South and John Wilhelm of HERE in New Haven and Las Vegas. Starting with fewer than 400,000 members, UNITE HERE hoped to demonstrate how unions could organize on a big scale. But now the two leaders and the union are fiercely divided, with Raynor’s UNITE faction denouncing the merger as failed and even suing to get out of it. Raynor’s group seems likely to try a different merger, with the nearly 2 million-member SEIU.

UNITE and HERE merged as equals, with general president Raynor sharing extensive decision-making power with Wilhelm, president of the hospitality division. Raynor’s constitutional authority gave the old, smaller, richer UNITE a check on HERE’s larger numbers. Also, there was much speculation that Wilhelm would run for AFL-CIO president in 2005 (or even retire). But as it turned out, UNITE HERE joined the unions that split from the AFL-CIO in 2005, forming the rival Change to Win coalition, and Wilhelm remained in office.

The merger has turned out to be a “huge disappointment,” Raynor says. Both leaders set greater gains in organizing as the test of the merger’s success. But after a strong first year, the merged union has organized fewer members each year than the two unions organized in four of the five pre-merger years, despite spending more. Raynor says he was upset that Wilhelm’s national Hotel Workers Rising campaign two years ago focused on “getting more for existing workers and not organizing.”

UNITE leaders like Midwest vice president Noel Beasley, argue that the cultures of the merged organizations clashed: UNITE was centralized with a large national headquarters; Wilhelm linked HERE’s decentralized collection of local unions. Unlike UNITE, Beasley said, HERE “organized with the velocity of a glacier.” Now, Raynor says, in language reflecting the intensity of the fight, the HERE faction is imposing a “tyranny of the majority” to “hijack the rights of our members and millions of dollars in assets created by generations of Jewish, Italian and Latino immigrant workers and steal them in the dark of night.”

Since December Wilhelm has led a majority on the union’s executive bodies–nearly along the original union identities–to overrule Raynor, oppose a breakup and set policy (unconstitutionally, Raynor says). “I believe the merger has been extremely successful for workers,” says Wilhelm. “There’s only one problem with the merger–and I say this in sadness–and it is that Bruce insists on dictatorship. Bruce has no use for democracy at the local level and said he can sit in New York City and make decisions for the whole union. If we’re going to be strong, we’ve got to be a bottom-up union with strong locals.”

Wilhelm contends that hotel and food service organizing has gone well, but gaming industry organizing has temporarily fallen. HERE organizers do insist on building strong committees of workers, Wilhelm says, but UNITE has likewise spent many years, even decades, organizing at corporations like Cintas and J.P. Stevens. Chicago-based vice president Henry Tamarin says such committees of supporters are needed not only to win recognition and good contracts but to protect majority sign-up (or card-check) recognition against employers who exploit new rights to challenge union recognition.

Relations between the two factions deteriorated last year. Efforts to resolve the conflict failed, and new grievances developed. Starting in December each side tried to take control of local unions from the other. For the HERE group, one turning point came this past summer when it claims Raynor ignored its suggestions and, as part of a joint campaign with SEIU, negotiated an agreement on organizing rights for food service workers at the giant Aramark Corporation that was unnecessarily weak. The conflict partly turns on a central labor movement question of finding the balance between new organizing and raising standards for union members.

The debate on how unions can best grow is also one of the key issues in the conflicts between SEIU’s international leaders and its highly successful 150,000-member Healthcare West local, as well as between SEIU and the California Nurses Association. After SEIU put UHW in trusteeship in late January, the local’s leaders launched a new union and quickly gathered petitions to decertify SEIU for more than 25,000 workers. In February CNA accused SEIU of interfering in its internal elections. SEIU has also entered merger negotiations with the Raynor faction, leading some in UNITE HERE to complain that SEIU is trying to dissolve the merger for its own gain.

There are clearly some problems with the UNITE HERE merger, or at least the two presidents’ relationship. Even in success stories, notes Clark University professor Gary Chaison, “mergers seldom solve the problems they were created for.” In this bare-knuckle internal fight–partly a struggle for power, partly a battle over strategy–neither side is beyond reproach for its tactics.

Raynor insists, “There will be a divide, voluntary or forcible.” Wilhelm is pushing constitutional reforms for a summer convention of the merged unions. But mediated talks about how to divide the union and its assets are also reportedly under way. In any scenario, new organizing will likely suffer for a while. But whatever form UNITE HERE takes, its members deserve an organization with vigorous democracy and effective leaders, one that can simultaneously grow rapidly and improve their lives. American workers also need a labor movement not so distracted by its internal battles that it loses a historic opportunity for political and organizational gains.