In labor as in business, a merger doesn’t always work out. In the case of UNITE HERE, which until recently represented more than 400,000 hotel, food service, textile, laundry and other workers, it’s a marriage gone sour. The odd man out is General President Bruce Raynor. But he’s far from out of the picture. In fact, he may wind up on top. Raynor and anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 supporters recently jumped ship and formed a new union, Workers United, which recently elected him president and affiliated with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). To say that UNITE HERE President John Wilhelm is not on the best of terms with either Raynor or Service Employees President Andrew Stern is an understatement.
UNITE HERE came about in 2004 when the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) joined forces. UNITE’s Raynor would be general president; HERE’s Wilhelm would assume the title of hospitality president. It seemed like an ideal move. UNITE, which controlled the Amalgamated Bank of New York, had lots of cash but stagnant if not falling membership. HERE, by contrast, had a growing membership but little cash. A merger could create a collective-bargaining force to be reckoned with.
It was not to be. While Raynor and Wilhelm were co-equals, the union constitution specified Raynor would have the final say in a dispute. And gradually Wilhelm stacked the governing board with loyalists who gradually gave him additional powers. It was a recipe for a collision. From the start, the alliance had difficulty resolving organizing, internal governance and other issues. The union’s secession from the AFL-CIO and formation with the SEIU and other unions of the new Change to Win federation did not mitigate the problems. By the close of last year Raynor declared UNITE HERE a failure.
Wilhelm loyalists were infuriated, and apparently at least one has broken the law. Raynor charged that certain opponents had broken into his office and stolen sensitive files. “The situation at UNITE HERE has devolved from sporadic hostile actions to a sustained attack that represents a direct threat to the welfare of our members,” he stated. “Our union is in total chaos.” He wasn’t kidding. This past January he sued Wilhelm personally – something rare in organized labor circles – charging usurpation of authority. On March 22, many of the local unions constituting UNITE formally left UNITE HERE and affiliated with the Service Employees. The governing board suspended Raynor this April and scheduled a disciplinary hearing. In the face of this, Raynor’s resignation in late May was almost inevitable.
Raynor and his United Workers want a clean break with the past and a commitment to build a large-scale union. “Even though this is a time for looking forward, we can’t ignore the past,” he remarked at his June 1 acceptance of the union presidency. “In order for all our unions to move on, we need to settle our disagreements once and for all. This dispute is damaging for our members and the entire labor movement. That is why I want to reiterate my commitment to negotiating an end to the UNITE HERE merger up to and including binding arbitration.” Edgar Romney, founding president of United Workers and now its secretary-treasurer, added, “By renewing the partnership we have built over years of leadership at our predecessor unions, we are poised to do even more and take working people further.”
John Wilhelm, having watched a rival walk away with a third of his members, understandably isn’t happy. On May 29 he issued this statement denouncing Raynor, urging remaining members to do battle:
It is good news for all of UNITE HERE that Bruce Raynor has resigned from the union one day ahead of his internal union trial for promoting the breakup of the very union he was sworn to defend.
His departure removes an important, though not the only, barrier to returning our Union to the vital work that it does for hundreds of thousands of workers. We have important contracts to negotiate, organizing drives to conduct and we now must rebuild our international union headquarters operation.
While we recognize the good news of his resignation, we are under no illusion that SEIU and Raynor have given up their quest to steal UNITE HERE’s hotel, gaming, and food service jurisdictions.
Indeed, Raynor’s resignation letter makes clear that he intends to continue his fight, and he will do so under Andy Stern’s control inside SEIU.
Given such rancor, can anyone be surprised that Raynor’s UNITE HERE office appears to have been burglarized?
Raynor’s departure hardly means an end to internecine warfare. For one thing, it’s not impossible he’ll draw support from existing UNITE HERE members if he manages to win strong contracts for the United Workers. For another, the United Workers, as an affiliate of the SEIU, is part of the same Change to Win federation. The SEIU already represented more than 2 million workers before the pro-Raynor faction came aboard. If John Wilhelm and Andrew Stern can’t get along, UNITE HERE might well head out the exit door.
Stern is trying to play peacemaker. With Raynor and Romney, he co-authored a June 4 open letter to the Labor Movement. The letter accused Wilhelm and his supporters of launching “an open, clearly unconstitutional attack” on UNITE. At the same time, the trio proposed a resolution: a payment of around $50 million to UNITE HERE, or almost three times what HERE had brought to the merger. Wilhelm, no doubt seeing this is as hush money, has refused to accept the offer or negotiate. There’s nothing surprising here. Fights within organized labor have had an extra hard edge to them. And this is not one where the combatants are going to make up without some egos seriously bruised along the way.