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.”