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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Jul 27, 2010, 2:26 pm

UNITE HERE, SEIU Resolve Major Dispute, Agree on Division of Money, Members, Organizing

BY David Moberg

UNITE HERE President John Wilhelm says he and other leaders of the hotel and restaurant workers union are “giddy” with delight at the settlement late Monday of a bitter fight with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) that has dragged on for more than a year and a half.

“All of us at UNITE HERE are thrilled about the content of the settlement even though we remain both frustrated and outraged by the diversion of energy and resources away from workers that has occurred for the last two years because of SEIU’s attempt to highjack our union,” Wilhelm says.

The conflict, which made nearly every major union president angry at SEIU and its president, Andy Stern, started with an internal split in UNITE HERE over strategy and a desperate move by then-president Bruce Raynor to split away part of the union when he saw that Wilhelm was likely to win the presidency in 2009.

In 2004, Raynor, head of the main union in the shrinking garment and textile industry, UNITE, and HERE president Wilhelm arranged a merger that would use UNITE’s financial resources to fund organizing in HERE’s growing industries.

Stern, who had long argued that both of those unions should merge with SEIU, began maneuvering not only to help Raynor break away and to provide a home and organizational support for Raynor’s faction (as an SEIU division, Workers United). He also tried to take over all of UNITE HERE, according to Wilhelm.

When Stern unexpectedly resigned this summer, newly elected president Mary Kay Henry–who defeated Stern’s pick as his successor–clearly made settling the dispute with UNITE HERE and patching frayed relations with other union one of her top priorities. Indeed, although he never mentioned the fight with UNITE HERE as a cause for his resignation, it may have lost Stern support within the union, particularly from Henry’s healthcare sector.

Wilhelm credited Henry with putting in a huge effort to make a settlement possible. “No question,” he says, “if Andy Stern were still president, we’d be still combating with SEIU. His departure and her ascension made a big difference.” 

In a press release, Henry mainly praised the settlement as a way to return to organizing and improve relations with allies and other unions. “We agree that we cannot be spending our time fighting one other over workers who are already represented when there are far too many people who want and need a voice on the job,” Henry said. “Our resources and our attention must be put toward solutions for the crisis workers face right now.”

In the settlement, UNITE HERE got all of the cash in various funds and control of a large, income-generating office building in New York. The New York Times put the value at $75 million in cash and $70 million for the building, but Wilhelm says he cannot put a precise value on the assets, except that it is higher, in the “hundreds of millions.” Workers United/SEIU gets control of the old garment unions’ Amalgamated Bank, with $4.5 billion assets.

The unions also reached agreement on most of the disputes about which UNITE HERE members will be in each union. SEIU will control most of the old UNITE local unions and members, except for the New England region of old UNITE, which chose to stay with UNITE HERE. UNITE HERE kept most of the organized gaming operations and hotels, as well as many food service workers. The unions set up procedures to decide where another 11,000 still-contested workers will go.

For future organizing, SEIU promises not to organize gaming and hotel workers, where UNITE HERE dominates, but the two unions either agreed to compete for some types of food workers or carve out jurisdictions, such as granting UNITE jurisdiction over business and industry food service and SEIU over health care industry food workers.

UNITE HERE, whose vaunted organizing slowed sharply as the union spent $10 to $15 million or more fighting SEIU’s attacks, sees the settlement as opening new possibilities. “Now we can concentrate all our resources on representing current members and organizing unorganized workers, which is what we should ne doing,” Wilhelm says. “It’s a strange way to get there, but now we’ll have the resources to compete with employers in our increasingly globalized indus, which was the original goal of the merger.”

The settlement may marginalize Raynor within SEIU, but it should also boost  Henry both internally and with other unions. Raynor reportedly opposed the final settlement. At the same time, it may pose problems for California UNITE HERE locals, especially the big San Francisco local, who have openly backed the National Union of Healthcare Workers in their fight over who will represent the roughly 165,000 members of SEIU’s trusteed statewide healthcare local.

Ultimately, even if it’s a particularly good deal for UNITE HERE, the agreement should help SEIU. But one big winner is the whole labor movement, which needs to focus attention more effectively on mobilizing union members at the workplace and in politics, and on recruiting more members before it simply disappears.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

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