Editors note: This story is an update of "Unite Here Weighs Split," appearing in the Newsline section of the April issue.
A faction of Unite Here, the union representing hotel and textile workers, has voted to secede and join ranks with the Service Employees International Union.
The splinter group met in Philadelphia on March 21 to form a new union, Workers United, which announced its affiliation with SEIU two days later. Workers United claims it represents 150,000 former Unite Here members, including 40,000 hotel and restaurant workers.
John W. Wilhelm, president of Unite Here, has condemned this and previous efforts to divide the membership, arguing that the formation of Workers United is "in blatant disregard of the law and the Union's [Unite Here's] Constitution." Wilhelm has taken legal action to invalidate Workers United and protect the human and financial assets of Unite Here.
Existing hotel contracts will not be affected by the reorganization of workers, but, if the new union withstands legal challenge, the new unions will change the dynamics of the next round of negotiations, labor relations experts said. SEIU has 2 million members, including those of Workers United; prior to splintering, Unite Here had roughly 440,000.
Rifts within Unite Here have been widening for some time. "You could probably say it was inevitable from the beginning," Bill Werner, a professor who studies labor relations at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said of the breakup.
The union formed in 2004 when Unite, a textile workers union, merged with Here, a hotel and restaurant employees union. At the time, Here was in poor financial shape and benefited from Unite's flush treasury; Unite was attracted to the size of Here's membership. According to numbers available at unitehere.org, Here's members make up about 70 percent of the union.
Unite Here general president Bruce Raynor, who was the head of Unite prior to the merger, has criticized Wilhelm's spending habits and inability to meet organizing goals, arguing that former Unite members haven't benefitted from the merger as much as Here members have. Within a span of four weeks in January and February, three lawsuits were filed against Wilhelm and other union leaders for various infractions, with Raynor a plaintiff in two.
Raynor even submitted his own proposal to dissolve the merger, which was voted down by Unite Here's board on Feb. 10.
But the group that formed Workers United has coalesced behind Edgar Romney, who served as executive vice president of Unite Here and on the New York Metropolitan Area Joint Board of Unite. A spokesperson for Workers United said Raynor was not involved with the formation of the new union at all, and Raynor released a statement saying he was "saddened to not represent these members anymore" but that he had decided to stay at his post with Unite Here through the end of his term, which coincides with Unite Here's next convention in June.
Raynor claims Wilhelm's attempt to keep the union together is a power grab and an attempt to keep financial assets that Unite brought to the merger, namely Amalgamated Bank, the only union-owned bank in the country, which Unite Here now controls.
"It exemplifies one of the main problems throughout the merger: it's been all about money all along for Wilhelm and his supporters," Raynor wrote in a memo to union members. "It was never about workers."
Wilhelm similarly has accused SEIU president Andy Stern of preying upon his union and its money. "Stern plans to swallow Raynor's followers into his union and take the Amalgamated Bank in the bargain," Wilhelm said in a statement on March 20. "We're not going to let this happen."