SEIU and Unite Here end 18-month feud
Tuesday, July 27, 2010; 5:14 PM
Two of the country's largest unions have resolved a vicious feud that roiled organized labor for 18 months, costing it hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, undermining each other's organizing efforts, and distracting it from opportunities presented by Democratic control of Congress and the White House.
The dispute began in earnest in spring 2009 with the break-up of Unite Here, a union that was created by the 2004 merger of the hotel and restaurant workers union, Here, and the garment workers union, Unite. The hope had been that the merged union could combine Here's sizable membership and growth potential with the considerable financial assets of Unite, which owned Amalgamated Bank but had seen its membership decline sharply over time.
But the merger proved an ill-fitting marriage, and the breakup in early 2009 was ugly. The leader of the Unite faction, Bruce Raynor, formed a new union called Workers United, affiliated with the 1.8 million-member Service Employees International Union. While he sought to attract as many members as possible for Workers United, the remaining Unite Here, led by John Wilhelm, tried to keep his membership base and to claim financial assets that Unite had brought into the merger.
Further complicating matters was the role played by then-SEIU president Andy Stern -- the influential labor leader hoped to capitalize on the split by joining forces with ally Raynor, but many others in the labor movement took offense at Stern's intervention in the breakup of another union. As the fight dragged on, SEIU spent millions to subsidize Workers United. In an interview after he announced his retirement in April, Stern sounded ambivalent about the decision to intervene, saying it might pay off in a wave of members for SEIU but also comparing it to the decision to invade Iraq.
Under the settlement reached Monday night, SEIU and Workers United will gain control of Amalgamated Bank, the only labor-owned bank, but Unite Here will maintain control of many other assets, including the union's New York headquarters, the historic home of the garment workers' union.
Unite Here, meanwhile, will retain most of the members of the merged union: It will maintain jurisdiction over hotel and casino workers as well as food service workers at stadiums, convention centers, private companies and airports. In addition to the dwindling number of remaining garment and laundry workers, SEIU and Workers United will have jurisdiction over food service workers in sectors where SEIU has made inroads, such as hospitals, prisons and government buildings. While Workers United claimed to have drawn away as many as 100,000 of Unite Here's 265,000 members during the past year, the settlement restores the vast majority of the members, more than 200,000, to the Unite Here fold.
In a statement, Wilhelm congratulated SEIU's new president, Mary Kay Henry, with an implicit slight of her predecessor, Stern. "For the sake of workers and the labor movement, I hope that this is the first step in making SEIU the great union it can be under her leadership," he said.
Henry said in a statement that that she hoped the settlement would allow unions to push organized labor's agenda more effectively. Unions have scored some victories in the past year but have fallen short on their top priority, legislation to make it easier to organize workers. Henry did not say whether she planned to try to mend more fences by also negotiating a return of SEIU to the AFL-CIO, the labor federation that SEIU and several other unions broke from five years ago, though she did pledge to "link arms with our allies in labor" and "forge stronger relationships."
"Despite the tensions that have existed between our unions over the past months, John Wilhelm, Bruce Raynor and I have worked together to find common ground, and we've been able to put our differences behind us," she said. "We agree that we cannot be spending our time fighting one other over workers who are already represented when there are far too many people who want and need a voice on the job. Our resources and our attention must be put toward solutions for the crisis workers face right now."