UNITE-HERE has left the AFL-CIO, and what I want to know is whether the name of the union is being changed to UNITE-THERE. On Tuesday, the executive board of the 450,000-member union — the product of a merger last year between UNITE (formerly the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees) and HERE (the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union)
— voted at a meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota, to leave the federation. UNITE-HERE joins the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and the Teamsters in quitting the AFL-CIO — defections that have now reduced the federation from 13 million members to 9 million.
On September 27, those four unions, the Carpenters (which left the AFL-CIO four years ago), the Laborers, and the United Farm Workers, which are still federation members, will convene in St. Louis for a one-day founding convention of their own new federation, which has provisionally been called the Change to Win Coalition, the most bumper-stickerish name for an actual organization in recorded history. Leaders of the Change to Win Coalition have told me that they mean to unveil a new name in St. Louis but have not as yet achieved consensus on what that new name should be, which alarms some who believe that labor should at least sound marginally serious. (Well, it alarms me.)
In interviews Wednesday with the Prospect, both UNITE- HERE General President Bruce Raynor and the union’s hotel-division president, John Wilhelm, spoke with a bit more specificity than the Change to Win leaders have previously about the new labor formation that will emerge in St. Louis. The unions in the new grouping, Raynor said, ‘are in a position to organize nonunion workers in retail, hospitality, transportation, food processing, constructions, and health care.’ In addition to what the unions do individually, and in partnerships with one another on specific campaigns, they will ‘create a strategic organizing center as part of the new federation, not just to help us on existing campaigns but to initiate and run centralized campaigns itself.’ In this, the new grouping is partly modeled on the old CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), in which the central organization planned and carried out the unionization campaigns in such industries as auto and steel. This model, however, did not survive the CIO’s merger with the AFL (American Federation of Labor) in 1955.
Seventy-five percent of the budget of the new formation, says Wilhelm, will go to organizing. ‘My hope and my expectation is that this will have an instigating effect. The CIO had conventions and resolutions and political programs, but the only reason people remember it is that it organized millions of people. The conditions for organizing are clearly different now than they were then, but if we’re going to have a middle- class economy, retail has to be organized, and no one union can do that by itself. That would be a prime example of what the new federation needs to instigate.’
The new federation, Wilhelm cautions, won’t have the resources for tasks of the magnitude of organizing America’s retail sector, though he hopes it can get the ball rolling. ‘The per-capita dues [that member unions will pay to the new federation] will be lower than the AFL-CIO’s per caps. The difference will be used to fund enhanced organizing campaigns in our own unions, or in specific joint campaigns.’
The UNITE side of UNITE-HERE is certainly no stranger to leaving the federation. The three main unions that left the AFL in 1935 to organize industrial workers in what became the CIO were John L. Lewis’ United Mine Workers, Sidney Hillman’s Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and David Dubinsky’s International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), though the ILGWU was back in the AFL fold by 1938. The latter two unions were the chief forebears of UNITE.
Of the various unions in the Change to Win camp, the SEIU and UNITE-HERE are the two that have transformed themselves into the kind of organizing machines that labor plainly needs to become if it’s going to survive. Both unions devote a little more than half their resources to organizing — a commitment far in excess of their coalition partners and of almost all the unions remaining in the AFL-CIO. Both also represent the political left of the union movement. In last year’s Democratic presidential primaries, the SEIU backed Howard Dean, while UNITE (which had not yet completed its merger with HERE) supported John Edwards.
In their interviews, both Raynor and Wilhelm stressed that despite the defection, they still expected an undiminished level of labor support for unionized hotel workers (that is, they expect their fellow unions to continue to patronize union hotels) and for the Amalgamated Bank, which UNITE-HERE owns and in which many unions deposit their funds. ‘I totally trust the leaders of American unions,’ said Raynor. ‘I don’t believe they would attempt to hurt the only union-owned bank in America because they disagree with a decision of the union that happens to own the bank.’ The withdrawal of $50 million from the bank by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) earlier this year, Raynor noted, was not related to the question of UNITE-HERE’s membership in Change to Win but to a jurisdictional dispute between the two unions — and that was an anomalous event in the bank’s history.
As for hotels, said Wilhelm, ‘I will be startled if any significant amount of union business would go to nonunion hotels. That’s not a realistic likelihood.’ Raynor noted that in recent weeks, despite a widespread belief that UNITE-HERE was about to leave the federation, a range of AFL-CIO unions, including the United Auto Workers and the Machinists, have been ‘great about patronizing union hotels and avoiding the nonunion ones.’
Indeed, the imperatives of economic reorganization and political challenge have already forced some of the unions that were the most combative about the split to work together in the weeks since the secessions began. This week, the CWA, which has fiercely opposed the Change to Win unions, and the recently departed Teamsters announced that they had formed a new group — the Airline Customer Service Employee Association. It will represent the 6.000 passenger agents at US Airways currently represented by the CWA and the 3,500 agents at America West currently represented by the Teamsters when the merger of those two airlines is completed. In California, unions on both sides of the divide are now working together in municipal labor councils to oppose the anti-union initiatives on November’s special- election ballot. And later this month in St. Louis, the Change to Win unions hope to shake things up to the point where they can begin to arrest the movement’s — and the nation’s — long, sickening decline.
Harold Meyerson is the Prospect’s editor-at-large.
Copyright (c) 2005 by The American Prospect, Inc.
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