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November 23, 2017

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Big union reels as card-check fight looms

Culinary leader in Vegas calls parent union chief’s actions ‘undemocratic’

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Leila Navidi

Unite Here General President Bruce Raynor appears in 2007 with workers in Las Vegas. Raynor has sued his co-president, John Wilhelm, and seven others, alleging “a naked power grab by Wilhelm and his followers, including D. Taylor.” Taylor is secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Union in Las Vegas, and he denies the allegations.

At a time when Big Labor is pushing for one voice to win its most ambitious priority since the Great Depression — “card check” legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize — one of the country’s largest and most progressive unions is busy fighting its own civil war.

Beyond the Sun

Unite Here General President Bruce Raynor has 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.

Unite Here is the parent organization of Culinary Workers Local 226, Nevada’s largest and most powerful union.

Raynor’s lawsuit also goes after D. Taylor, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary. Taylor, along with six other defendants, sits on Unite Here’s executive committee and is widely considered Wilhelm’s protege. Throughout the 1990s, the two men rebuilt the Culinary after years of decline and a devastating citywide strike, making it into the country’s largest and most successful union local.

How the Unite Here infighting might play out in Las Vegas is unclear, but elsewhere, casino workers say employers are exploiting the internal dissension and testing the union’s resolve by violating union contracts.

Tension between Raynor and Wilhelm has been brewing since Unite, the textile and apparel workers union, merged with Here, the hotel and casino workers union, in 2004. At the time, the two men devoted considerable attention to developing a power-sharing arrangement, enabling “a merger of equals … without either side fearing domination by the other,” according to Raynor’s complaint, filed last week in U.S. District Court in New York.

Raynor accused Wilhelm and his former Here allies, including Taylor, of using an executive committee meeting in New York last month to seize power, forcing votes on a number of internal administrative and spending measures that were the province of the two co-presidents. By circumventing Raynor, Wilhelm and the other committee members violated the union’s constitution, the complaint said.

Wilhelm was traveling Wednesday and unavailable for comment.

Raynor’s lawsuit seeks to reverse Wilhelm’s actions and prevent similar ones.

The executive committee’s votes, taken at Wilhelm’s behest, compromised the “essential work” of the union — resolving disputes with employers and organizing, Raynor said. Indeed, there appears to be little remaining good will between the two leaders and their factions, with Raynor, in an e-mail response to the Sun’s questions, pronouncing the 4-1/2year-old merger a failure.

“The strength of our union has been compromised by two things: the failure of this merger to produce results for working people and a naked power grab by Wilhelm and his followers, including D. Taylor, designed to enhance their own power and financial control of the union rather than deal with the real issues our members are facing.”

Taylor offered a wholesale denial of the claims made in Raynor’s complaint, saying the union’s executive committee, comprised of elected officers, acted within the authority of the union’s constitution. He called the Unite faction’s lawsuit “beyond belief,” charging that Raynor, not Wilhelm, was interested in consolidating power.

“There’s a fundamental difference between a dictatorship and democratic trade unionism,” Taylor said. “We do not think we should have a dictatorship of one or two people. We think democratically elected bodies should be able to have authority over the future direction of the union. The idea that you would try to stifle a democracy that is the norm in most unions is besides sad, it’s tragic.”

Taylor said the lawsuit was one in a series of “undemocratic” actions taken by Unite-affiliated entities within the union in recent months. For instance, this month, a regional Unite Here board in the Midwest controlled by former Unite officials removed the head of Local 24, which represents casino workers in Detroit. The union leader, Joe Daugherty, led the epic six-year strike at the Frontier in Las Vegas, earning him the nickname “Saint Joe,” and is aligned with Wilhelm.

Daugherty said the regional board fired him from his post as the union’s Michigan state director and, as part of what he referred to as an “illegal takeover attempt,” barred him and other elected officers from the local’s offices. “No notification, no meeting, no justification. It’s a power grab,” Daugherty said. “The joint board is trying to gain political power and have control of the dues money from Local 24.”

The Detroit dispute is now in court and a majority of members from the local have signed a petition to disaffiliate from the regional board, Daugherty said. (A Unite Here local in Phoenix has taken similar measures to fend off a perceived takeover by Unite supporters.) Still, the conflict has disrupted the union’s work, including contract negotiations with a bankrupt casino operator, as both sides claim to be the sole collective bargaining representative of workers.

“It’s a big mess,” said Muhith Mahmood, a food server and shop steward at MGM Grand Detroit. “They should have come out and talked to us. They can’t just come in and throw somebody out.” He said casino operators were taking advantage of the internal conflict by violating contracts and terminating employees for minor offenses.

To be sure, the Unite faction and the regional board have defenders in Detroit.

Earnest Lemond, president of Local 24’s airport division, said his shop at the airport had threatened to decertify the union 18 months ago because of what he called Daugherty’s ineffective leadership. Despite promises about better representation, things never improved, said Lemond, who complained to the regional board.

One point both sides can agree on: “We’re supposed to be one union, Unite Here, not Unite and Here,” Lemond said. “Our dues are financing this battle and the members are the ones being neglected.”

The cracks between the two factions could be seen two years ago, as the union wrestled over its endorsement in the Democratic presidential primary. The Culinary, in conjunction with the international union, had planned to announce its decision after the Iowa caucuses last year, but postponed it until after the New Hampshire primary, leaving the union just 10 days to educate members about its choice, Sen. Barack Obama. In the Nevada caucus, Obama was beaten badly in Clark County, the union’s stronghold, and those in the Wilhelm faction blamed the long delay on Raynor, who publicly favored former Sen. John Edwards.

Labor foes, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, will surely find fodder in the internal dispute, and with recent turmoil within the Service Employees International Union, as the card-check bill makes its way through Congress. But former Rep. David Bonior, who was on the short list to be Obama’s labor secretary and was labor’s closest ally during his long tenure in Congress, said he remains optimistic about the bill’s passage.

In fact, this month, Bonior moderated a meeting of labor leaders representing the country’s 12 largest unions, including Unite Here. The subject: reunification, after the labor movement split into two rival federations in 2005.

Internal disputes, Bonior said, won’t derail the ongoing talks.

“The labor movement is millions of people and thousands of leaders,” he said. “At any given time there’s a grievance. It’s not unusual.”

Raynor and Wilhelm face reelection this summer at the union’s convention, where Taylor and other union officials have pledged to outline a “clear platform of democratic reforms.”

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