“Cultlike” Union Organizing Tactics?

The row between the UNITE-HERE hospitality and textile union and Workers United — which broke away from UNITE-HERE earlier this year and joined the powerful and growing Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — has taken a bizarre and ugly turn.

According to The New York Times, several UNITE-HERE organizers have complained about a practice known as “pink sheeting,” in which union members are pressured to reveal private and potentially embarrassing personal information about themselves. Union organizers then allegedly use those workers’ stories to present as testimonials that illustrate the kind of hardships that the union has helped its members overcome.

More than a dozen organizers said in interviews that they had often been pressured to detail such personal anguish — sometimes under the threat of dismissal from their union positions — and that their supervisors later used the information to press them to comply with their orders.

“It’s extremely cultlike and extremely manipulative,” said Amelia Frank-Vitale, a Yale graduate and former hotel union organizer who said these practices drove her to see a therapist.

Several organizers grew incensed when they discovered that details of their history had been put into the union’s database so that supervisors could use that information to manipulate them.

UNITE-HERE President John Wilhelm denied that pink sheeting was common, and denounced “the organized campaign to condemn it” (as Times reporter Steven Greenhouse describes it) as an effort by SEIU to discredit UNITE-HERE.  As I’ve noted here before, SEIU is not above bullying its own members, and SEIU President Andy Stern has motive to go after Wilhelm’s union.

Before UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees) and HERE (Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees) merged in 2004,  Stern has made no secret of his desire for SEIU to absorb the two unions. He offered HERE’s Wilhelm and UNITE chief Bruce Raynor to join SEIU. They declined and merged their unions with each other, but did join the Change to Win coalition, which Stern helped found in 2005 when he took SEIU out of the AFL-CIO (the Wilhelm-led UNITE-HERE has since rejoined the AFL-CIO). As The Las Vegas Sun‘s Michael Mishak, who interviewed Stern in May 2009, notes:

To hear [Stern] tell it, two of the nation’s most progressive unions would not now be at war had they only listened to his advice five years ago. Back then, as Unite, the garment and apparel workers union, and Here, the hotel and casino workers union, considered merging, Stern suggested an alternative: join SEIU, which was surging forward as the country’s largest and fastest-growing union.

Unite President Bruce Raynor and Here leader John Wilhelm declined.

Instead they formed Unite Here, parent of the Culinary Union, promising to organize large numbers of workers nationally. The honeymoon was short-lived, and long-simmering tensions between the two leaders erupted into public view this year, with Raynor calling for a divorce and Wilhelm struggling to keep the merger intact

Yet whatever SEIU’s motives, the claims made against UNITE-HERE are serious enough to warrant further investigation. (Thanks to Vincent Vernuccio for the Times link.)

For more on SEIU, see here.

For more on UNITE-HERE, see here.