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Culinary parent union Unite Here to remain unified

Updated Monday, Feb. 9, 2009 | 5:57 p.m.

Beyond the Sun

The Unite Here executive board voted Monday afternoon to remain unified after General President Bruce Raynor proposed a divorce.

Unite Here is the parent union of Culinary Workers Local 226, the largest and most powerful union in Nevada. Raynor had sued the man with whom he shares power, former Las Vegas union leader John Wilhelm, for allegedly attempting to seize control of the international union.

Also accused in the lawsuit is D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary.

Raynor told the Sun last month that the 4-1/2-year-old merger had been a failure, and advanced the idea of a divorce over the weekend in The New York Times. At issue is the allocation of union resources. In his lawsuit, Raynor argues that Wilhelm, co-president of the union, and his former Here allies on the international union's executive committee violated the union's constitution by voting and approving measures that were the province of the presidents alone.

Wilhelm argues that the committee acted within its rights and counters that Raynor is the one interested in consolidating power.

Raynor had publicly floated the idea of a divorce over the weekend, and Edgar Romney, executive vice president of the international union, offered a resolution today to immediately terminate the merger of Unite and Here, based in part on what he said was the failure to organize large numbers of workers. The resolution failed by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent, the precise makeup of Here and Unite members on the executive board.

Romney is one of five plaintiffs affiliated with Unite (including Raynor) in the lawsuit against Wilhelm. In a statement today, Romney said the Wilhelm faction "believes it can simply party-line vote one side of our merged union into powerlessness."

Another detail in Romney's statement: the "One Union Committee," apparently dedicated to resolving the differences of the two factions.

According to Romney, the civil war has affected the union's ability to fight for its members in the workplace and in Washington. From his resolution: "The current factional strife is a disaster for our members and the union, paralyzing many of our desperately needed efforts to defend our members, organize our industries and to rebuild the economy through passing the Employee Free Choice Act and other political activity."

Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse has a summary of the reasons for the merger in 2004:

"On paper, the marriage made sense, besides making for the catchy Unite Here name. Unite — the descendant of two illustrious New York unions, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union — had lots of money to organize workers, but few workers left to unionize because so many apparel jobs had moved overseas. At the same time, Here was starved for cash, but saw an ocean of hotel and restaurant workers to unionize.

"The idea was that once the unions merged, Unite’s ample treasury — it owns Amalgamated Bank, the only union-owned bank in the nation — would underwrite a surge in organizing."

But, both in the Times piece and in a statement released this morning, Raynor said the merger had failed to accomplish its goal. The unions, he said, were more successful as separate labor organizations. In the Times, Raynor called Wilhelm and his allies, including Taylor, "a bunch of thugs," and, in his statement, accused them of attempting a "hostile takeover."

Wilhelm repudiates Raynor's characterization, and in a statement after today's vote, called his co-president's efforts "an undemocratic attempt to break up our Union that had not been sanctioned by our rank-and-file members across the U.S. and Canada."

He said the merger makes as much sense today as it did in 2004, and then took a shot at Raynor. "The merger has not worked for Bruce Raynor because he believes that the Union is his personal property and wants to rule it as an absolute dictatorship."

Wilhelm also disclosed some ugly details about the internal civil war, which has been brewing for some time. In his statement he said Raynor told him in November that since he "cannot win at our members’ Convention in June 2009, he planned to 'start the war now.'"

Unite Here holds its convention in June.

Statement from John W. Wilhelm:

Today, the General Executive Board of UNITE HERE voted by a substantial 62% to 38% margin to remain unified. The General Executive Board, which is our Union’s highest governing body after the Convention, voted to stop an undemocratic attempt to break up our Union that had not been sanctioned by our rank-and-file members across the U.S. and Canada. I am proud that today the General Executive Board of UNITE HERE affirmed that we are a strong Union and that together we will continue to fight for a strong voice for all working people across North America.

We believe the merger that created UNITE HERE made sense in 2004 and we believe it makes sense today. The merger has improved our members’ lives and has strengthened our Union in all of its industries. The merger has not worked for Bruce Raynor because he believes that the Union is his personal property and wants to rule it as an absolute dictatorship.

Labor unions, like any other entity attempting to govern itself democratically and for the common good of its members, may at times may face difficult challenges. However, we are a membership organization with democratic processes. We have elected leadership bodies, we have a Constitution, and we have a Convention. When there are disputes or disagreements, these bodies serve as the core of our Union’s democracy.

Last November, Bruce Raynor told me that since he cannot win at our members’ Convention in June 2009, he planned “to start the war now.” Just moments ago, Raynor called members of our Executive Board “jerks” for resisting his call to split the Union. The disrespect Raynor shows our governing body of elected leaders is the same disrespect he shows the members of our union in his attempt to trample on their rights and futures.

I am proud that today a large majority of our General Executive Board voted to remain unified. We will not permit Bruce Raynor to split the Union by creating chaos and internal destruction. We will not allow for undemocratic attempts to takeover or split our Union. Instead, we will restore a democratic Union, a Union that fights for strong standards for our current members and a Union that fights to organize workers across North America.

Statement from Bruce Raynor:

Greetings,

You may have read about problems in our union, UNITE HERE, in the New York Times this weekend. As people who care about the labor movement, I think you deserve to hear what is going on directly from me.

By every measure, the 2004 merger of UNITE and HERE has been an abject failure and, unfortunately, it is time for our unions to divorce. Twenty-three elected UNITE HERE leaders representing more than 150,000 members are submitting a resolution to the General Executive Board today stating their desire to move on and leave this failure behind us.

This should be a time of incredible hope and concerted action from the labor movement, as we have the most pro-worker administration we have had in generations. And as workers continue to get beat down by this economic crisis, they need a strong labor movement more than ever. I would like nothing more than to be working with our members and elected leaders on the change we campaigned so hard for last fall, and that moved all of us when Obama took office last month. But before we can get the House and Senate moving in the right direction, we need to get our own house in order.

I have lived through and worked on countless mergers in my 30 years in the labor movement. Before this, all have succeeded. What has became clear to me and many other affiliate leaders - including HERE leaders that support this divorce - is that what John Wilhelm and his small band of zealots is pursuing is not a merger at all, but a hostile takeover. They want to seize control of the union and UNITE's assets that were built through 100 years of hard work by low income, largely immigrant men and women so he can then redirect them to the failed programs of a few of his favorite locals. We will not let that happen.

Wilhelm and HERE have a history of spending recklessly and squandering resources. At the time of the merger, HERE was nearly bankrupt. They had mismanaged their money, including their national pension fund and some of their welfare funds. We bailed out these funds so their members could have their health care and pensions. We will not allow them to run this great union into the ground.

Maybe the person who makes the best case for the divorce is John Wilhelm himself. At our merger convention in 2004 Wilhelm defined the standard for our success:

"The test of the success or failure of this merger should be whether UNITE HERE organizes substantially more workers in the years to come than our two unions have been organizing separately before the merger."

At that time, Wilhelm promised that we would come to this next convention in June 2009 with hundreds of thousands of new members.

But the facts speak for themselves. UNITE HERE has organized fewer workers than the two unions were organizing separately prior to the merger despite a skyrocketing organizing budget, yearly dues increases and a rapidly expanding staff.

Since 2005, UNITE HERE has spent more than $61 million on organizing in HERE's hotel and gaming sectors with little to show for it. The total membership of our union is stagnant, and only about 32,000 workers have been organized in those robust sectors. In contrast, only $10 million has been spent on campaigns in UNITE's traditional manufacturing, distribution and retail sectors, yet we have organized 7,000 new members in those struggling industries.

But not only have John Wilhelm and his associates failed at organizing, and squandered millions of dollars in the process, they have also failed to represent their members. Countless contracts with employers have expired without being renegotiated and members' grievances go unanswered. UNITE has a history of the strongest financial management and assets in the labor movement, staying solvent even at times that our industries have suffered and the national economy has struggled. And this has proved to serve our members well - and allowed us to build more power for workers even in the most trying times. This history is endangered by the Wilhelm clique's financial irresponsibility. They have demanded deficit spending since the merger, and - even in these difficult times - proposed a budget which would increase our annual spending by nearly $6 million, despite forecasting a shortfall of more than $25 million.

Failed organizing projects, squandered resources and no accountability; it would be unconscionable to let Wilhelm and his cronies carry out this hostile takeover. To that end, former UNITE leaders have also filed suit in federal court to undue undo the merger. But we should be able to get past this without the court's help. It is time to separate, for the sake of our members, for the sake of our union.

Statement from Edgar Romney

Greetings,

Statement from Edgar Romney:

Executive Vice President of UNITE HERE

Secretary-Treasurer, Change to Win

Washington - This afternoon I moved a resolution seeking the General Executive Board's support for a negotiated and responsible termination of the merger. I, along with the 23 other Vice Presidents who voted in favor of this resolution, did not arrive at this vote lightly. I worked hard to hold this union together, in the One Union Committee, and in daily work.

But our union is broken and our merger has failed in its mission to organize large numbers of workers to build power for working people. Today, I listened as Vice Presidents passionately explained what the deep divisions within the union are doing to our ability to represent members and meet the challenges we face.

I am deeply saddened that of the 39 votes against the resolution, only 2 felt it important enough to speak to their reasons or engage in the discussion about the most important issue facing our union - our future. It is yet another sign that they are uninterested in seeking middle ground and that reconciliation is not possible. And it is another sign that, declarations of respect for the minority aside, the Wilhelm faction believes it can simply party-line vote one side of our merged union into powerlessness.

Resolution:

Without regard to any legal rights we may have, it is clear that the course that is in the best interest of our members is a consensual termination of the merger of UNITE and HERE. With a full reservation of legal rights, I move as follows:

1. that the GEB support an immediate termination of the merger agreement.

2. that the GEB urge all officers, staff, and members to take all necessary steps to implement a mutually satisfactory termination of the merger.

3. that the Presidents and such additional officers as they designate should meet and report back to the GEB within 10 days on a mediation and arbitration process to accomplish an end to the merger which protects the rights of all members and affiliates

4. that if the Presidents are unable to agree upon an agreement of termination, that the issues relevant to termination be submitted to an arbitration process for final and binding arbitration.

In support of this motion I offer a resolution signed by 23 leaders of our union.

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