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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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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Atomazul

 

What I call the “Pepicelli Dilemma” confronts all union leaders who consciously recognize the limitations of existing trade unionism and want to break out of the paradigm, yet feel—and frequently are—constrained by major forces ranging from the existing base of the union, expectations of the current members, the challenge of new organizing, to the chasm that seems to exist between the union movement on the one hand, and the millions of non-union workers desperately seeking economic justice, on the other.

To the credit of Warren Pepicelli, manager of the New England Joint Board of the labor union UNITE HERE,  he and his team do not fear looking into the face of the Gorgon.  The New England Joint Board (NEJB) of the merged International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers and Connecticut Textile Council (the three of which having been components of the union known as UNITE) found itself in a very unusual setting when their parent union—UNITE—merged with the Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Employees (HERE).  Over the years Pepicelli has successfully navigated stormy seas in a union essentially from another era into a position where it is directly taking on the challenges associated with the building of a new labor movement in the 21st century USA.  He and his team have been trying to come to grips with tough questions such as the relationship between building a labor union and building a workers’ movement; what is his role as the leader of the New England Joint Board; how should he, as a result, utilize his time; and, what are the actual steps that need to be identified in order to conclude that one is actually engaged in a process of internal transformation, or as my late friend and the great labor leader Jerry Tucker would say, a process of “labor reformation”?

The first thing that struck me when I met UNITE HERE New England Joint Board Manager Warren Pepicelli was that I was almost positive that we had crossed paths more than thirty years prior when we were both student activists in the Boston area.  I cannot say for sure, but it is just one of those gut feelings.

The second thing that struck me was that he was not a picture post-card for an unconventional labor union leader.   There has never been a moment that I have ever seen Pepicelli not dressed in a suit.  Well-groomed, 60 years old, generally soft-spoken, Pepicelli is a bit of an enigma.  His appearance is, at first glance, that of a more traditional, mainstream union leader.  But it is when he starts speaking with you, and when you see what he has been attempting to do, that it is akin to meeting his doppelganger. 

Warren Pepicelli grew up in Newton, MA, and became a progressive activist while enrolled in what was then known as Boston State College.  Entering college at the tail end of the Vietnam War, he found himself enraged once he began to learn about US foreign policy generally, and the actions of the USA in Indochina in particular.

Pepicelli became active in the union movement when he went to work as an organizer for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, a New York-based union which subsequently merged with the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union to form UNITE.  By the 1990s, the ILGWU and ACTWU were both facing a crisis brought about by the transformation of the textile and garment industries and the ramifications for their respective workforces.  Both unions chose to merge as a way of staving off collapse and positioning themselves for the potentiality of new growth.  Pepicelli was subsequently elected the manager of the New England Joint Board (of the merged ILGWU, ACTWU and Connecticut Textile Council).

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.”           

The split tore at the guts of the NEJB.  People around the country with whom Pepicelli had worked, or in some cases had been aligned over the years, were on the other side and in addition, they and SEIU were coming after units represented by the NEJB.  UNITE HERE generally, and the NEJB in particular, was able to win considerable support in the struggle against the secessionists.  Pepicelli’s integrity was one important factor in convincing labor activists in the Boston area that his cause was worthy of support.

Though Pepicelli and the NEJB survived the civil war (which effectively ended in 2010), they did so at great cost.  As Pepicelli noted to this writer, they came out intact, but they were exhausted and demoralized.  They also lacked a real sense of direction.  The terms of the cessation of hostilities with SEIU restricted some of the sectors or jurisdiction for potential growth for the NEJB.   It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the NEJB could have either collapsed or fallen slowly into oblivion.

Choices

In all unions the question of jurisdiction (which can include industry sectors and/or geography) is a complicated and frequently volatile matter.  This has certainly been true within UNITE HERE.  In Boston, for instance, sharing the same building (owned by the NEJB) has been both the NEJB and Local 26 of UNITE HERE (led by Brian Lang).  Each union has struggled to define itself on its own terms as well as with respect to the other union.  Local 26 has a very different history from the NEJB and, under the leadership of former President Dominic Bozzotto, Sr., they became-during the 1980s—the flagship union in the New England area for militant collective bargaining struggles as well as a visionary approach to many aspects of the struggles for economic and social justice (including solidarity with other unions).   Though Local 26’s reputation declined beginning in the early 1990s, it nevertheless remains a significant force in the Boston area labor movement and a key local union in UNITE HERE.

Against this contrasting backdrop Pepicelli has attempted to define and create a ‘new’ NEJB.  In order to do so he has had to identify new industries in which to grow; identify new staff; and change the culture of the union.  Each of these areas remains a work in progress.

To Pepicelli’s glee, the NEJB won the support of UNITE HERE to move new organizing in the New England region in food service and gaming (they are also exploring possibilities in historic areas for the NEJB, specifically light manufacturing and laundries).  While they have not given up on their old industries, they correctly understand that the changing economy has meant that they either grow into new—and sometimes unrelated—sectors, or they will die.

A second important step has been the hiring of new staff who have embraced the vision of a 21st century NEJB and who wish to be part of a change process.  It is clear through their responses to questions posed by this writer that they see in Pepicelli a leader who will both inspire them but also challenge them.  He also seems to give them space to grow.  This does not mean that every hire has worked out.  In some cases the existing culture of the NEJB has not been something that younger activists have found to be hospitable and have, as a result, departed.  That said, Pepicelli has apparently assembled a team that is committed to his vision of growth and change.

Yet it is in the arena of change and organizational culture that Pepicelli may face his most daunting challenge.  When asked about the relationship between building a labor union and building a worker’s movement, Pepicelli offered a sober yet thoughtful analysis: 

They are dialectically connected.  We have to build a labor movement that is inclusive and brings in more people.  We get pointed to by the mainstream media as a "club" or "clique."  We as a movement, have to deal with broader worker issues.  That effort, however, must go hand in hand with the building of organization.  There have to be structures to effectively move the fight for economic justice.  These structures make it possible to fight.  We cannot win on the basis of what you could call “random uprisings.”  

In addition to this, we have to be better at attracting immigrant workers into leadership.  And we have to win over younger workers, which means that we need to speak the languages of our potential members and potential base.

This is much more difficult than people think that it is.  You have to be very honest about the problems. Bringing younger workers into established unions is a challenge.  There is an inevitable clash of cultures.  To build a whole new organization, you have to engage in honest discussion.  We are not going to attract young workers by simply saying that we are going to do it.  We may have to change structures and we may need to build new structures.  That scares many people.

Pepicelli went on to emphasize that there needs to be a significant internal educational project in order to help to defeat despair within the ranks as well as to build confidence that a new sort of labor unionism can be practiced.

This sentiment is critical not only for the NEJB, but for the entire labor union movement.  This sentiment, however, appears to have been unevenly transformed into a new practice within the NEJB.  Though the union is guided by a new vision, it has not undergone a strategic planning process in order to ensure that the process of growth is related to the overall transformation of the NEJB (including organizational transformation).  The NEJB also needs to create the sort of internal educational initiative that Pepicelli sincerely believes to be an essential component of his overall program.

We are, thus, left with the “Pepicelli Dilemma.”  Fortunately for labor activists Warren Pepicelli and the rest of the leadership of the NEJB have not allowed themselves to be turned into stone when facing these challenges.  While it might be more comfortable to follow the old ‘rules’ of trade unionism, what Pepicelli recognizes and states honestly to his members, is that there is no future in the past.

 
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