Las Vegas Sun

June 16, 2019

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Union power struggle escalates

Unite Here’s review board seeks federal probe as leadership battle poses threat to election

Beyond the Sun

Unions want President Barack Obama’s pick for labor secretary, Rep. Hilda Solis, to be an advocate for workers’ rights who will advance an agenda that will tilt the balance of power back to organized labor.

But she may first have to play referee in the vicious civil war that has erupted inside one of the country’s largest and most progressive unions.

The leaders of Unite Here, the parent organization of Culinary Workers Local 226 in Las Vegas, are engaged in a bitter power struggle, punctuated by lawsuits and, in one instance, violence. The recent upheaval has caught the attention of the union’s Public Review Board, which took the rare step of petitioning Solis last week for a Labor Department investigation.

The board, which serves as an independent watchdog of union activities, requested the Labor Department probe to ensure members’ voting rights are protected in advance of the union’s convention in June. It also asked the government to appoint a labor official as election monitor for the convention.

“Union political disputes are neither uncommon nor inherently of concern,” wrote James R. Thompson, a former Illinois governor and chairman of the Public Review Board, in a Feb. 5 letter. “But when those internal political struggles create the potential that union members will be deprived of their right to participate in union democracy … (we) feel that the government should not sit back and wait for that to occur, but instead take affirmative and preemptive action.”

The petition comes as Unite Here’s leaders, Bruce Raynor and John Wilhelm, fight each other for control of the union, which represents nearly 400,000 apparel, hotel, restaurant and casino workers. Formerly two separate unions, Unite and Here merged in 2004.

Long-running disagreements

over leadership style and union resources burst into public view last month when Raynor and his Unite allies filed a federal lawsuit against Wilhelm and other Here leaders, including Culinary Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor, accusing them of using their majority on the union’s executive board and committee to advance administrative and budgetary measures that were the province of the two presidents alone.

According to the lawsuit, the measures moved more of the union’s money to fund Here operations, effectively punishing Unite locals. Raynor ratcheted up the rhetoric

over the weekend, calling Wilhelm and his allies “a bunch of thugs,” and pushed the idea of a divorce in a resolution at the union’s executive board meeting Monday, saying the merger had failed to meet its organizing goals. That measure failed by a 62 percent to 38 percent margin, roughly the makeup of Here and Unite members on the board.

Wilhelm blasted back, saying the merger had in fact strengthened the union. “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,” he said.

The Raynor faction countered by announcing another federal lawsuit Tuesday, this one filed by 15 Unite-affiliated leaders asking to dissolve the merger.

Wilhelm called the lawsuit frivolous and part of Raynor’s “attempt to sabotage democracy.” He said the union’s constitution offers two venues for conflict resolution — the executive board or the membership convention — and pointed to the Public Review Board’s request to bolster his argument.

Indeed, among the concerning incidents listed in the board’s letter was the union’s Canadian conference in November. Unite delegates walked out en masse to protest bylaw changes, effectively depriving the conference of a quorum and thus preventing the election of officers.

“There is a general belief within the union,” Thompson wrote, “that the same numerical anomaly will apply at the Unite Here international convention this summer.”

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