Divorce–Union Style

Divorce–Union Style

Can the labor movement overcome UNITE HERE’s messy breakup?


“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.

How and why SEIU wound up with these former UNITE HERE members is the source of much friction within the labor movement, causing union leaders, liberal academics and rank-and-file members to choose sides. Wilhelm and UNITE HERE accuse Stern, Raynor and SEIU of poaching their members and money. Raynor says he is just taking out what UNITE brought into the 2004 merger with HERE.

Wilhelm joined the labor movement in 1969; Raynor and Stern in the early ’70s. They hoped to change the world and reverse labor’s fortunes. Unions, which had represented 35 percent of the workforce in the late ’50s, were starting a steady decline as unionized factories shut down and moved overseas, businesses began an aggressive antiunion assault and unions failed to organize workers and add new members. The three baby boomer radicals were known as brilliant organizers and rose steadily through the ranks of their respective unions.

Wilhelm and Raynor knew each other casually. In 1999, Wilhelm praised Raynor at a ceremony honoring him with an alumni award from Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. But the two didn’t become close friends until 2003, when Wilhelm was leading a strike of 2,500 maintenance, clerical and food service workers at Yale University. To generate national publicity and put pressure on the Yale administration, the unions brought more than 10,000 supporters–including members of other unions, community allies, students from Yale and other universities, and political figures like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Vermont Governor Howard Dean–to shut down a section of downtown New Haven in September of that year. More than a hundred demonstrators were arrested, including Wilhelm, Raynor and Stern, as well as AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and Douglas McCarron, president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters.

Raynor says he told Wilhelm he’d help raise $1 million to replenish the strike fund. “I called Andy, and he got SEIU to write a check for $250,000,” Raynor recalls. Soon after the strike ended, Raynor and Wilhelm began talking about merging their two unions. A friend of both leaders called their relationship a “mutual admiration society.” UNITE and HERE officially tied the knot in 2004, forming UNITE HERE.

UNITE, itself the product of several previous mergers of garment and textile unions, including the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers, inherited a proud tradition of progressive social unionism among immigrant workers. UNITE HERE also inherited ownership of the garment unions’ substantial assets–including two large Manhattan office buildings, the nation’s only union-owned bank (the over $4 billion Amalgamated Bank) and a relatively large operating budget.

At the time, the merger seemed to make sense. UNITE’s membership had been dwindling dramatically since the 1970s, as the US clothing industry shrank and Americans began importing most of their apparel from Asia, Mexico and Central America. Under Raynor–who made his reputation organizing J.P. Stevens textile workers in the South during the ’70s–UNITE was servicing its members, including its many retirees, and trying, with modest success, to make inroads organizing workers at industrial laundries. But the union’s future looked bleak.

HERE (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees), in contrast, was a union on the move. Its young organizers viewed their union as part of a crusading social movement led by Wilhelm, a feisty and charismatic figure. Wilhelm began his career as a student at Yale and then helped unionize the university’s clerical and blue-collar employees. Under his leadership, the union organized a successful rebuilding effort in Las Vegas hotels and casinos. HERE evolved from a highly decentralized network of local (and sometimes corrupt) affiliates to a stronger, more coherent and more effective organizing force. It focused primarily on immigrants in low-wage jobs in national hotel chains and the growing number of gambling casinos. But despite its growth, HERE was starved for cash and lacked the financial resources to expand as quickly as Wilhelm thought was possible in the booming hotel and casino sector.

After the merger, Raynor became president of the new UNITE HERE, with Wilhelm assuming the leadership of its hospitality division, the sector where the union was anticipating the most growth.

In 2005 Stern, Raynor and Wilhelm led their unions–along with the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers and several others–out of the AFL-CIO and formed another union umbrella, Change to Win, which pledged to devote more resources to organizing new workers and reorganizing the labor movement along industry sector lines so that it could be more effective in challenging global corporations.

Within three years of the merger, however, Raynor and Wilhelm were clashing over the pace of change and, some longtime HERE leaders claim, Raynor’s heavy-handed leadership style. Wilhelm’s aides say Raynor offered employers weak “sweetheart” contracts so the union could add new members and employers could avoid a protracted fight, bad publicity and a possible strike.

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.

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.”

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.

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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