Economy

Constitutional Crisis Sparks All-Out War for Control of Powerful Union

A struggle for power within one of the nation's most powerful unions, UNITE HERE, has devolved into all-out civil war.

A struggle for power within one of the nation's most powerful unions, UNITE HERE, has devolved into all-out civil war. Internal hostilities have all but paralyzed the union just as organized labor faces its biggest political battle in modern history, facing down big business to pass the Employee Free Choice Act.

In 2008, organized labor pulled together to help elect Barack Obama, but even with a Democrat in the White House, labor is still facing a tough fight to get 60 votes in the Senate. Big business is sparing no expense to kill the proposed legislation.

Organized labor is caught short-handed while UNITE HERE's two presidents are locked in a power struggle. The irony is that despite its progressive values and innovative organizing tactics, the union, which represents 400,000 workers in the garment and hotel industries has become a casualty of its own constitution, which vests near total control in the hands of the presidents...provided they agree with each other.

General President Bruce Raynor, formerly the president of UNITE, is racing against time to undo the merger and lead his old union out of UH before he faces reelection at the convention in June.

Former HERE locals comprise the 60% of the membership of UNITE HERE and will therefore send the majority of delegates to vote on the union's next president.

"Raynor really wants to hold onto power," said Bill Fletcher, Jr., Director of Field Services and Education Department at AFGE and the author of the book "Solidarity Divided,"  "Now counting the numbers realizing he could lose out to Wilhelm."

Wilhelm, formerly the president of HERE, is trying to keep UNITE HERE together and consolidate his own power over the whole organization, with the help of a HERE-allied majority on the union's executive board.

Ironically, Raynor and Wilhelm are hamstrung by a constitution they negotiated themselves. Each president has veto power over the other on almost all major decisions, from the budget to organizing campaigns.

Wilhelm and his faction of former HERE officials control the union's General Executive Board, but the board has little power to act independently when the presidents don't agree.

The simmering tensions within UNITE HERE devolved into all-out war in December of 2008, when president Wilhelm commandeered an emergency meeting on the union's Executive Committee in Long Island, NY. The was ostensibly called to plan strategy on Employee Free Choice and discuss the union's own budget crisis.

Wilhelm and his allies shocked the UNITE faction when they used their majority to reset the agenda pass a series of surprise "budget steps" that would, amongst other things, have abolished the union's communications department and most of its in-house legal team.

Outraged by what he saw as an attempted hostile takeover and an unconstitutional usurpation of his authority, Raynor filed a federal lawsuit against his fellow president, asking the court to reverse the resolutions and stop Wilhelm from reintroducing them at the upcoming General Executive Board meeting in Washington, D.C. in early February. The meeting came and went, but the court didn't act.

At the same GEB meeting, the UNITE faction tried unsuccessfully to pass a resolution that would have allowed UNITE to secede.

Shortly before the meeting, the UNITE faction filed a separate federal lawsuit against Wilhelm and his allies demanding that the constitution of UNITE HERE be declared null and void because the 2004 merger between the two unions had failed to achieve its stated objective of organizing large numbers of unorganized workers.

Legal experts said it is extremely unlikely that a court would dissolve UNITE HERE's constitution in response to the lawsuit. The court would have to make its decision based on UNITE HERE's own constitution, and there's nothing in the constitution that allows for dissolution on these grounds. In fact, the constitution says that the union cannot be dissolved if even three locals support its continued existence.

Unless some kind of deal can be brokered between now and June, it appears likely that the Raynor faction will lose at the convention. If that happens, individual UNITE-allied locals could begin the slow, painful process of withdrawing from UNITE HERE individually.

Regardless of who has the legal right to leave whom, the merger of UNITE and HERE appears in retrospect to have been a marriage of convenience based more on money and ambition than true compatibility. Like so many of these opportunistic partnership, this one has soured.

"The UNITE HERE merger made no sense from the beginning," said author and trade unionist Bill Fletcher, Jr.. At its inception, the UNITE HERE merger was billed as a model model for the future of the labor movement. The the two unions were both giants in the Change to Win coalition, a group of dissident unions whose leaders engineered a dramatic split with the AFL-CIO in 2005.

The two pillars of the Change to Win philosophy are massive organizing and restructuring the labor movement along industry lines. Unfortunately, the merger embraced one and ignored the other.
 
"The public rationale given at the time was that the members of these unions were very similar," said Fletcher. "The real reason was that HERE lacked finances to do the kind of organizing, and UNITE had resources but didn't have jurisdiction or turf to go out and organize."
The leaders of the merger made no bones about the financial incentives. Wilhelm sold the deal to delegates at an HERE convention, saying "they've got a great deal more money than we do."

Indeed, UNITE came into the marriage with about $500 million in assets, including its own bank. HERE had few assets to speak of and many of its pension funds were dangerously underfunded. However, UNITE had only 150,000 members at the time of the merger and Raynor later admitted that he feared the prospect of a declining membership base. HERE had a larger membership base and was thought to have significantly greater opportunities for expansion in the growing hospitality sector.

Despite the high-minded Change to Win rhetoric about the importance of organizing along industry lines, UNITE and HERE represented quite different industries. There were areas of overlap, but casino dealers in the Las Vegas didn't have a lot in common with textile workers in New York.

After the merger, UNITE HERE continued to operate as two unions with one logo, with Raynor presiding over the former UNITE locals and Wilhelm running the former HERE locals.

As organizations, the unions themselves didn't have much in common, either, experts said.  The question is not necessarily whether one is approach is superior, but whether these different ideals can coexist in a single, functional union.

Like any troubled married couple, UNITE and HERE have the same fights over and over. The UNITE faction complains that HERE is profligate with union funds and ineffective in the field. HERE counters that UNITE's expectations are unrealistic.

UNITE says HERE is giving too much money to its pet locals, even though those locals can already fund themselves with dues. HERE says these locals are getting extra money because they need support to grow.

HERE traditionally gives its locals a lot of autonomy, whereas UNITE locals get a lot of direction from the national leadership.
UNITE came into the merger as an established, well-staffed union, while HERE was more of a bare bones operation. Years after the merger, HERE continues to outsource core union business to outside contractors close to Wilhelm, to UNITE's immense frustration.

Even within a union that was founded to organize, there are profound disagreements about how best to grow. UNITE is almost exclusively focused on growth and has clashed with HERE about the tradeoffs between getting the best possible wages and benefits for a smaller number of workers vs. accepting a contract that might be slightly less attractive at the outset, but which would establish a toehold in a shop that wouldn't otherwise be unionized at all.

Paul Durrenberger, a professor of anthropology at Penn State University, who studies the labor movement, said that UNITE embraces an organizing model that doesn't sit well with HERE. The idea is for the union to approach the management directly and convince the company not to oppose unionization.

"The top-down idea is that if you could get management to recognize the union, you wouldn't have to spend lots of effort and money organizing," Durrenberger explained. HERE subscribes to a more bottom-up approach that involves convincing each rank-and-file worker to commit to fighting for a contract against potentially hostile management.

The two approaches don't mesh any better in practice than the do in theory.

"What I found when we tried to work together on campaigns was that we had fundamentally different approaches to organizing," said Cristina Vazquez a member of the UNITE-allied Western Regional Joint Board, and a Vice President of UNITE HERE.

"In our tradition you focus on getting workers a contract as quickly as you can because that's how they get raises, health care, and all the protections and benefits of having a union," Vazquez said.

A UNITE HERE spokeswoman speaking on behalf of the Wilhelm faction acknowledged that growth was important, but stressed that it could not come at the expense of standards.
 
UNITE maintains that each side was more effective before the merger and that the two unions should go there separate ways as soon as possible. HERE defenders counter that expectations may have been unrealistic and that even the best organizing campaigns don't necessarily produce instant results.

One thing is clear, the massive organizing gains envisioned at the beginning have failed to materialize, despite a annual organizing budget of approximately $50 million. UNITE HERE organized an average of roughly 16,000 workers a year between 2005 and 2007, which is far fewer than predicted at the time of the merger and not significantly more than the total number of workers that UNITE and HERE organized each year before the merger. One of the main reasons that UNITE HERE hasn't been more successful is that the organizing climate in the United States has become extremely hostile over the past several years. If the Employee Free Choice Act becomes law, organizing is expected to get a lot easier.

Unions merge all the time. UNITE itself is the product of a 1995 merger between two other garment unions. It's never easy because every union has its own culture and traditions. UNITE HERE made a difficult job impossible by failing to give a single leader control over the whole union. Perhaps the philosophical and organizational hurdles could have been overcome if the union's constitution hadn't made integration between the two groups virtually impossible.

In effect, the two-president system was designed to impede true integration between UNITE and HERE. The architects of the UNITE HERE merger were determined to create a marriage of equals--even though UNITE had significantly fewer members. They didn't want the minority union, UNITE, to be subsumed by the majority, HERE. So, they created a power structure that encouraged each president to tend to "his" side of the union, instead of making decisions that would move former UNITE and HERE locals in the same direction.

Wilhelm now regrets the structure and is proposing a series of democraitzing reforms to share power more widely within the union.  Since the relationship between himself and Raynor has soured, Wilhelm has issued public statements warning about the dangers of dictatorship in unions.

"I am also opposed to President Raynor's insistence on greater centralization of power in the Union, and more specifically, in the Presidents," Wilhelm said on Feb 8, 2009.

It's not clear why he didn't propose that kind of power sharing when he helped negotiate the merger in 2004.
One version of the history of the merger between UNITE and HERE is spelled out in a lawsuit that Raynor filed against Wilhelm in early 2009--the one asking the courts to strike down Wilhelm's resolutions.

AlterNet sought comment from UNITE and UNITE HERE staffers about the history of the merger, but none of the staffers were prepared to comment on the record.
 
According to Raynor's lawsuit, Wilhelm first approached Raynor about a possible merger in 2003, after the two men and their respective unions worked together on a successful organizing drive at Yale University.

"Raynor and Wilhelm met personally, eight or nine times, to negotiate the terms of the merger and, in particular, to work out the power-sharing arrangements between the two unions and their leaders," Raynor's lawsuit says.
 
Wilhelm agrees that the power sharing arrangement was unusual. Years after the merger, at the height of the current strife, Wilhelm characterized the deal as "an unusual governing structure" which "vested immense power" in himself and Raynor.

The deal was ratified by each union individually and approved at a joint convention in the summer of 2004, but those votes were more or less a formality once Raynor and Wilhelm had struck their bargain.

There's widespread agreement that the joint presidency was never intended to be a permanent arrangement.  It was supposed to be a stopgap measure until Wilhelm was eased out. The two presidents wanted to have their cake and eat it, too: One way or the other, the president of UNITE HERE was going to be very powerful.

As further evidence of the temporary status of the joint presidency, UNITE HERE's constitution stipulates that the President/Hospitality would be abolished if either Raynor or Wilhelm were to leave the union with all presidential power to be consolidated in the remaining president.

The suit alleges that Wilhelm assured Raynor that he would retire after 2 or 3 years.

Wilhelm and Raynor staked the future of their unions on the assumption that they could share that power until Wilhelm moved on. They were wrong.

Independent observers confirm that two president solution was supposed to be temporary.

"The scuttlebut was that Wilhelm was planning to run for president of AFL-CIO," Fletcher said, "But the AFL-CIO split, and Wilhelm and Raynor were stuck with each other."

Like Raynor and Wilhelm, UNITE and HERE are stuck with each other for the time being, but ironically the supreme leaders of one of the most innovative and progressive unions in the country may have sealed UNITE HERE's fate with an ill-conceived gentleman's agreement to give themselves virtually unchecked executive power.

 
Lindsay Beyerstein is a New York writer blogging at majikthise.typepad.com
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