John Wilhelm, the long-time president of the union UNITE HERE, has just announced he plans to step down. Union leadership changes are not often considered major events, but the end of Wilhelm’s tenure is significant in that it closes a tumultuous chapter in his union’s history.
UNITE HERE formed as a result of the 2004 merger of two unions in two very different industries — textiles and hospitality. UNITE stands for Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees; HERE stands for Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees. Wilhelm was head of HERE, while Bruce Raynor headed UNITE.
While mergers across different industries have become more common as a way for unions to cope with declining membership, the UNITE-HERE merger had a symbiotic logic of its own. In recent years, UNITE had seen its membership fall as a lot of textile manufacturing has moved offshore. HERE, on the other hand, has faced better organizing prospects, since hotels and restaurants, like most service industries, cannot be outsorced.
So what did UNITE have to offer HERE? Quite simply, money — via its control of Amalgamated Bank, the nation’s only union-owned bank. Thus, with UNITE’s resources and HERE’s organizing prospects, the merged union would have a bright future. Or so it seemed, until union politics got in the way.
From the outset, UNITE HERE adopted a clearly unsustainable bifurcated leadership structure. Raynor became the union’s president, while Wilhelm headed its hospitality division. Raynor and Wilhelm would go on to clash, accusing each other of attempted power grabs.
In 2009, UNITE HERE split. Raynor renamed his segment of the union Workers United, affiliating with the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Then last year, Raynor lost his position — as well as control of Amalgamated Bank — after he was forced to resign over charges relating to $2,316.00 in allegedly misreported meal expenses.
In the end, Wilhelm fared much better than Raynor. Unlike Raynor, he was able to retire on his own terms. But having led his union through the merger and its failure, a major part of Wilhelm’s legacy is in having presided over one of the biggest and most contentious failures in organized labor’s history.