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An Unusual Hero: Warren Pepicelli and the Challenge of Union Transformation

Pepicelli has successfully navigated stormy seas in a union from another era, taking on the challenges of building a new U.S. labor movement in the 21st century.

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Pepicelli’s election was a mixed blessing.  He found himself overseeing a merged organization that experienced significant clashes of organizational culture.  The industries that they represented were declining. And the impact of neo-liberal globalization on this sector, along with crushing the industries, crushed the spirits of much of the workforce.  The ILGWU had, essentially, given up on new organizing and the merged union—UNITE—found itself fighting constant defensive battles.

To his credit, Pepicelli was able to oversee a successful merger and integration of the organizations.  They embarked on a search for new industries in which to grow, while at the same time attempting to fully represent the workers who were in the existing units covered by UNITE.

The formation of UNITE, in 1995, came about at a critical moment in contemporary labor union history.  Growing discontent with the union movement’s downward slide, an emerging echelon of leaders began to introduce a new and vibrant discussion regarding the direction for organized labor.  The merger of ILGWU and ACTWU represented not only an attempt to address the challenge faced by unions in declining industries, but also an attempt to bring together unions that shared industry sectors as a way of building greater power for workers in those sectors.  The merger also provided added steam for the larger union reform movement, led by John Sweeney (then of the Service Employees International Union), which, by October of that year, would capture leadership of the AFL-CIO and effect efforts to change the course of the national union movement.

UNITE pushed an aggressive approach to new organizing and in doing so also challenged a portion of the culture of the union.  Over time, the emphasis on new organizing, as well as growing impatience with the AFL-CIO, led UNITE to join with the Service Employees International Union and several other unions, in discussions that would ultimately result in a split in the AFL-CIO.  Prior to that unfolding, however, UNITE and the Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Employees (HERE)—another union involved in the burgeoning reform movement—decided to effect a merger.

The merger of UNITE and HERE was odd from the beginning, though the rationale provided was that the base of both unions was very similar, i.e., increasingly low wage and immigrant.  Nevertheless, the two unions came from dramatically different industries and organizational cultures.  In choosing to merge, those differences were largely ignored.  But more importantly, a very bizarre decision was made in consummating the merger:  there was no escape clause.  In other words, this was a wedding with not only no prenuptial agreement but also no agreement that a divorce was even possible.

The short period of the merger it became obvious that there were deep problems.  UNITE HERE’s President, Bruce Raynor, came from the UNITE side; HERE’s President John Wilhelm was given a secondary role.  The respective staffs of both unions complained privately about dramatically different approaches to organizing and internal life, but few steps were ever taken to address these concerns.  By all appearances, when Bruce Raynor realized that he was going to be ousted at the union’s 2010 convention, he—along with allies in the Service Employees International Union—fomented a split, resulting in an independent union, “Workers United”, which ultimately affiliated with SEIU.   

The details of the split (2009) and the subsequent civil war will fill a book.  For the purposes of this column, what is critical to understand is that Pepicelli took the unusual and very principled stand of refusing to split; instead he advocated that the New England Joint Board remain with UNITE HERE.  As Pepicelli so diplomatically put it in a discussion with this writer regarding the factors that led to the civil war:   “It was a good example of unchecked power; a leadership that was personalized, i.e., everything became about that one person.  It was a battle brought about as a result of a person who lost his connection to the core values of the movement.”           

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