Unions Disunited — and Fighting

The civil war between the two factions that until recently made up the union UNITE-HERE heated up further this week. Yesterday, the leadership of the rump UNITE-HERE voted to suspend the union’s general president, Bruce Raynor, who led a dissident faction out of the union. Raynor’s group incorporated as a new union, Workers United, which is now affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), as a “conference” of SEIU. Today, UNITE-HERE followed up with a protest outside SEIU’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, at which UNITE-HERE claims it had 300 people. SEIU, for its part, is accusing UNITE-HERE of suppressing dissent and of trying “to raid Workers United and SEIU” for new members.

UNITE-HERE was the result of the 2004 merger between the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees (UNITE), which was headed by Raynor, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE), headed by John Wilhelm, who now heads the current version of UNITE-HERE. Before the split, Wilhelm headed the union’s hospitality division.

Earlier this year, Raynor accused Wilhelm of trying to take over what had been UNITE’s resources, which were greater than those of the former HERE, whose hospitality constituency showed greater possibility for unionizing large numbers of workers. This combination of more workers to organize (HERE) and greater resources (UNITE) created the alleged synergy that brought the two unions together in the first place. Now the fight has grown into a proxy war between the AFL-CIO, which UNITE-HERE has decided to rejoin, and SEIU President Andy Stern, who led his union out of the AFL-CIO in 2005 and formed his own labor coalition, Change to Win — of which UNITE-HERE was a member.

It’s hard to say what will come next, other than the Wilhelm/UNITE-HERE/AFL-CIO vs. Raynor/Workers United/SEIU fight is unlikely to cool down any time soon — especially with control over the former UNITE-HERE’s assets at stake, and Stern’s propensity to never relent in pursuit of his goals. As union activist Steve Early writes in the left-wing online journal Counterpunch:

With family jewels up for grabs (in the form of UNITE-HERE’s $4.5 billion Amalgamated Bank), guess which Purple Knight stood ready to unite with either or both of the estranged partners, as long the bank was part of the deal.

That’s not not chump change anyone will let go of easily.

For more on SEIU, see here.