Saturday, March 14, 2009 | 2 a.m.
- Unions clash as card check lies in wait (3-4-2009)
- Union power struggle escalates (2-11-2009)
- Culinary parent union Unite Here to remain unified (2-9-2009)
- Nobody wins: Second vote leaves nurses divided, unions' fight unresolved (12-5-2008)
In 2005, a group of leading unions, including Culinary parent organization Unite Here, changed the landscape of the American labor movement by breaking away from the AFL-CIO and forming its own labor federation, Change to Win.
Rebellious labor leaders, led by Andy Stern of the Service Employees International Union, charged the AFL was too bureaucratic, a lumbering giant that had failed to reverse labor’s decades-long decline. The new federation, leaders promised, would lead an organizing revolution, taking labor out of the darkness.
Four years later, labor experts say the secession has produced mixed results and there are strong signs that Change to Win is cracking. With a vote Friday of its executive board, Unite Here proposed quitting the new federation and rejoining the AFL. In a strange twist, the union says the move was prompted in part by what it calls the SEIU’s “brazen interference” in Unite Here’s own civil war.
Moreover, union officials accused the service employees of attempting to raid union members from their core industries, including gaming.
Unite, the textile workers’ union, and Here, representing hotel and restaurant workers, merged in 2004 but have clashed in recent months.
Former Unite President Bruce Raynor and his allies have pursued a divorce, saying the merger had failed in its goal of organizing large numbers of workers and that former Here officials were seeking to seize control of the union. Former Here leader and onetime Culinary boss John Wilhelm says the merger has been a success and accused Raynor and his allies of acting like dictators, trying to break up the union illegally, outside the authority of its constitution.
About 1,500 officials and delegates, affiliated with the Unite group and representing 150,000 members, voted last week to break away and resigned their posts. The dominant Here faction dismissed the vote as illegal.
The SEIU injected itself into the high-profile fight in January, with leader Stern writing to both men, suggesting that Unite Here or either of its halves merge into his union. Since then, the Unite faction has met with the SEIU to discuss what such a merger would look like. Both sides are running campaigns for the hearts and minds of Unite Here members.
The SEIU says it has merely extended a “sincere and transparent” offer to both factions. After all, SEIU spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette said, the union openly objected to the merger from the outset. But former Here leaders point to a number of recent actions suggesting deeper involvement. For instance, Steve Rosenthal, an SEIU consultant and longtime Stern friend, is advising the Unite group.
The SEIU has also sent organizers into Unite Here locals with strong Unite membership. The Here group claims those organizers are promoting the virtues of the SEIU. Ringuette said the service employees sent workers at the behest of Unite leaders and were simply told to “defend and maintain the status quo.”
Perhaps most conspicuous was a professional mailer sent to Unite Here members across the country this month pronouncing the merger a failure. It featured the SEIU’s trademark purple, proclaiming, “You deserve a union that works.” The literature also told members to “look for the organizers in the purple Unite Here shirts carrying petitions at your workplace.”
The SEIU denied any involvement with the mailer. A Unite spokesman did not return a call and an e-mail seeking comment on the literature.
Of concern to the Culinary Union, which represents 60,000 hotel and casino workers in Las Vegas, was a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette saying the SEIU plans to represent employees of a casino under construction there.
Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the possible exodus of Unite Here from Change to Win signals the labor federation’s collapse. “It didn’t really work,” he said. “It never had legs down into the rank and file of labor. There was never any ‘there’ there.”
Lichtenstein recalled a landmark news conference in which the SEIU’s Stern partnered with Wal-Mart Chief Executive Lee Scott to announce a universal health care initiative — without notifying the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Change to Win union then waging an aggressive organizing campaign against the retailer. The grocery workers union later denounced the Wal-Mart/SEIU news conference, he said.
Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor professor at Cornell University who studies organizing, said that although Change to Win may have failed as a functional umbrella, it spurred some of its affiliates — the Teamsters and the Laborers in particular — to improve their organizing and research activities. She said it also forced the AFL to “step up its game,” citing the federation’s stronger stances on immigrant rights.
Labor experts said Unite Here’s exodus could further, if only in a small way, the efforts of a dozen union leaders to reunify the labor movement. With President Barack Obama and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, big labor sees a historic opening and is pushing for legislation that would make it easier for workers to organize.
“The labor movement needs to get its act together and this is the moment,” Bronfenbrenner said. “It’s a horrible time for the labor movement to be fighting internally — within unions and across unions.”
Even if the battles rage on, Lichtenstein said, reunification, whatever form it may take, would help labor “save face, if not solve the problems.”