February 21, 2009

Rifts Deepen at UNITE HERE

From March 2009, Labor Notes.

UNITE HERE had a lot to resolve at the three-day meeting of its General Executive Board in February—namely, the fate of the union.

Two presidents, UNITE’s Bruce Raynor and HERE’s John Wilhelm, forged an alliance in 2004, but as the union’s first convention approaches, the relationship has dissolved into out-and-out civil war.

Raynor first attempted to shore up support in a union where HERE members predominate by dispatching supporters to take over HERE-led locals in Detroit and Phoenix in recent months.

The executive board, dominated by HERE, responded by expanding its control over the union and voting to put three UNITE-led regional boards in the Northeast under trusteeship—a move they later retracted. Raynor and UNITE leaders then sued to separate the unions.

Factors in the complicated rift include power, money, ego, and disagreements over organizing strategies.


A week before the February 9-11 board meeting in Washington, D.C., Service Employees President Andy Stern invited UNITE HERE leaders to find a new home in SEIU. Wilhelm politely declined, but UNITE organizers say Raynor had already reached a deal with Stern before arriving in D.C.

On the meeting’s first day, Raynor and 23 vice presidents brought a resolution to dissolve the merger, deeming the 2004 tie-up a “dismal failure.” The board voted down the move by 62 percent.

Wilhelm said he would not give up on the merger and stressed the need to follow the union’s democratic procedures for resolving disputes.

Nearly all votes on resolutions were along party lines. Because of HERE’s large majorities on the union’s two most important decision-making bodies, both sides believe HERE leaders will unseat Raynor if the merger survives until the union’s June convention.

When the dissolution resolution fizzled, Raynor allies quickly turned to the courthouse. Leaders of 14 regional joint boards, a holdover structure from the former UNITE, sued for separation from the union in U.S. District Court in New York. It was the second lawsuit from Raynor’s camp, which had sued January 22 to halt HERE leaders on the union’s executive committee from exercising control over budget, staffing, and trusteeship matters.

The suit claims the terms of the merger allow joint boards to disaffiliate unilaterally, taking their money and members with them. UNITE owns the Amalgamated Bank, which has $5 billion in assets, and holds valuable New York property. Four years ago, it agreed to underwrite the organizing campaigns of HERE, which was larger but nearly bankrupt. Since 2005, the union has poured $61 million into hotel and gaming organizing.

Raynor accuses Wilhelm of failing to deliver membership growth equal to the investment—and seeking further “control of the union and UNITE’s assets…so he can then redirect them to the failed programs of a few of his favorite locals.”


Both sides agree on the need to grow the union, but their strategies differ. Wilhelm has recently criticized SEIU’s growth at all costs model, which Raynor has embraced. He worked with Stern to complete secret agreements with Sodexho, Compass, and Aramark, exposed in May 2008, that permitted SEIU and UNITE HERE to jointly organize housekeeping, laundry, and food service workers without company interference—so long as the unions limited organizing to specific sites and dropped others where campaigns were under way. The agreements also limited the total number of workers allowed to organize and waived workers’ right to strike.

“Such agreements should not be made at the expense of the very standards that are at the core of the union’s purpose,” Wilhelm said. “The union cannot expect to grow by making itself less relevant and beneficial to its members. Such a course would ultimately destroy the union.”

Wilhelm put forth a series of proposed changes to the union’s governance structure that would decentralize power away from the International presidents and ensure more power for the executive board, more autonomy for locals in negotiations and enforcement of contracts, and more local control of union funds.

Tensions between staffers have grown. UNITE-side organizers, through their staff union, have a grievance in arbitration against HERE’s choice of training methods. UNITE staff say organizers are asked to share traumatic events from their past with co-workers in team-building exercises; and object to gathering and sharing similar information about workers during organizing drives.


Members report that the jockeying for control of locals and resources has dented the union’s presence at work sites.

“Our union dues are paying for both sides, which are pitting member against member. And they’re spending our money with no resolution in sight,” said Ernest Lemond, president of Local 24’s Airport Division in Detroit.

UNITE leaders removed HERE veteran Joe Daugherty from his position as Michigan state director in January. At the executive board meeting, several ousted Local 24 leaders presented petitions to disaffiliate their local from the UNITE-dominated regional board, amid protests from other Detroit members.

The board voted to permit the disaffiliation and give the local more control over its dues. UNITE leaders abstained. While Joint Board officials stay put in Detroit, the case is poised for resolution in the courts. In the meantime, Local 24 remains out of sorts.

Jeff McCaffrey, who heads Local 24’s gaming division and tends bar at Detroit’s MGM Grand Casino, says the local has had to fight with the new UNITE-affiliated state director at the negotiating table over control of bargaining.

“Both sides are saying they’re the legitimate bargaining representative,” Lemond said. “Some of the companies have put union dues in escrow and have chosen not to deal with either side—they’re using this to their advantage.”

All eyes are on Chicago, where the June convention may be the next venue for UNITE HERE divorce court. After UNITE delegates walked out of the November convention for Canadian affiliates, preventing a quorum, the union’s Public Review Board asked the Department of Labor to ensure that the democratic process remains intact at the convention.

But UNITE HERE may not make it that far.

“This breakup is inevitable,” Lemond said. “They’re going to go their separate ways. It’s just how they do it.”

UNITE organizers say they’ve been informing members in their shops that a new marriage, one with SEIU—now poised to enter hotel organizing—is on the horizon.

February 19, 2009

Rail Rumors? Dukakis Sez Listen Up!

Several light rail projects were gaining steam in Detroit around this time last year, but have mostly become urban legend. Now they could get a jolt.

I'm told someday we'll have increased service along the Ann Arbor-Detroit corridor, with a new stop at an undisclosed location near the Detroit Metro Airport. The muzak doesn't inspire confidence:

Folks have been working on making real some version of a plan for light rail running up Woodward--one privately funded loop from Grand Circus Park to New Center, and a federally-funded extension of that line to 8 mile or 11 mile. But again with the muzak...

The more ambitious foresee expansion of light rail (and/or express buses) up some of the D's famed spokes--Michigan, Grand River, Jefferson or Gratiot--which would bring to fruition the original lost plans for the People Mover, which stalled before connecting its downtown loop to anything, well, outside of downtown.

Last March I spoke with Mike Paradise for this story about Detroit mass transit. Always envisioning utopias, the technology coordinator at Cranbrook Academy suggested that the Big 3 get in at the ground level, converting their manufacturing infrastructure, and putting the now squeezed UAW ranks back to work. He envisioned that each company could build competing protoype lines: Ford, from its HQ in Dearborn down Michigan Ave., GM from its 12 Mile and Mound Technical Center down Gratiot, and Chrysler from Auburn Hills into the city. There are undoubtedly fewer scoffing at these ambitions nowadays.

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Perhaps moved to action after an undoubtedly janky Amtrak whistle stop tour, Obama and his people pushed to add $8 billion last minute to last week's federal stimulus bill for the expansion of high-speed rail in corridors that the Federal Rail Association has recommended for upgrades since 2002. The money would go to updating existing rail infrastructure, for example between Chicago and Detroit, to allow higher speed trains like the Northeast Corridor Acela--the American standard that tops off at 150 mph.

Better than nothing, the $8b still doesn't come with a coherent nationwide plan to begin the shift from auto dependency, nor grapple with incorrigible sprawl. SEMCOG (the people behind the AA-Detroit plan and others) still predicts that most of its outlays in the next 20 years will go toward repairing existing roads in the region, a task that will take several billion on its own. Mayor Cockrel is now asking for $3.2b from the big stimulus bill to fund projects, including light rail, in Detroit.

The U.S. is not exactly ahead of the curve here, though California is promoting (with posterboy Michael Dukakis!) the construction of high speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles that is comparable to systems in Europe and elsewhere that reach 200-300 mph. I have a sneaking suspicion the plan could be fated like '88. I'm waiting for the clincher; Dukakis in the promotional cockpit of his own rickety monorail, with over-sized accessories, hitting the afterburner.

February 12, 2009

UNITE WHERE? SEIU Offers a Hand as UNITE HERE Power Struggle Goes Public

web exclusive from Labor Notes

The civil war in the upper reaches of UNITE HERE took a nasty turn January 22, when UNITE veteran and International President Bruce Raynor filed suit against fellow officers in U.S. District Court in New York.

Both sides of the union are jockeying for control ahead of the union’s first election since UNITE and HERE merged in 2004. The fight is drawing the attention of Service Employees (SEIU) President Andy Stern, who offered his own solution.

The lawsuit is part of Raynor’s attempt to shore up support in a union where HERE members predominate. At the time of the merger, UNITE had lost many of its members in a dying domestic textile industry, but brought cash through its union-run Amalgamated Bank, with assets near $5 billion. HERE brought a potential for growth in the hotel, restaurant, and gaming industries. The HERE side of the union has grown more quickly, organizing about 70,000 workers in the last six years, while UNITE ranks have stagnated.

The merger included a power-sharing agreement between Raynor and HERE President John Wilhelm, who took the title of hospitality president.

But the General Executive Board, composed of dozens of vice presidents, is dominated by HERE allies. Raynor accuses Wilhelm of abusing majorities on that board and a smaller decision-making body to resolve disagreements between the two presidents. According to the complaint, “The express language of the Constitution, all Union precedent, and the basic understanding of the parties to the merger are all to the contrary.”

Raynor’s suit seeks to reverse decisions made at a December 17-18 meeting of the executive committee, where Wilhelm’s allies voted to put two UNITE-led joint boards in the Northeast under trusteeship and appointed HERE allies to oversee them. HERE also sought administrative and budget changes whose greatest impact fell on UNITE-heavy departments. Outnumbered UNITE leaders abstained in protest.

Noel Beasley, head of the union’s Midwest Regional Board, joined the suit three weeks after sending in staffers to oust HERE veteran Joe Daugherty from his position as Michigan state director.

The disputed executive committee meeting shifted an important power, formerly held jointly by Raynor and Wilhelm, to the committee. The HERE-dominated grouping now has the power to review and approve any “growth agreements” with employers. The move is seen as a response to deals crafted by Raynor and SEIU. In 2005, they signed agreements with Sodexho and Compass, two transnational companies that provide laundry, housekeeping, and food services.

The secret agreements, exposed in May 2008, allowed the two unions to organize certain locations without company interference, but drew criticism because the pacts allowed the companies to limit organizing to specific sites, forcing the unions to drop others where campaigns were under way. They also limited the total number of workers allowed to organize and waived workers’ right to strike.

The deals fueled a long-standing division within UNITE HERE over organizing strategies.


On January 30, SEIU President Andy Stern offered Raynor and Wilhelm a way out by inviting them in. “After four years, we believe it is time as well as necessary for our movement, for both unions to reconsider their future—including a merger into SEIU as UNITE HERE or ending their merger and returning to their previous status and merging into SEIU as separate organizations,” Stern said.

A February 4 letter signed by Wilhelm and his majority on the executive committee—all defendants in Raynor’s late-January lawsuit—thanked Stern politely for his interest in building a stronger labor movement but asked him to wait till after UNITE HERE’s February 10 executive board meeting. (That meeting had been scheduled for Las Vegas, an HERE stronghold; Raynor moved it to Washington, D.C., citing security threats.) Raynor did not sign the response to Stern, raising questions about his next move as HERE leaders appear poised to take over the top spot in the union this summer.

February 11, 2009

Pre-Convention Battle: Detroit UNITE HERE Local Seized

Detroit’s UNITE HERE Local 24 was padlocked in January after the union’s regional board took over the local’s office and removed the appointed state director. The takeover was the opening salvo in a leadership struggle developing ahead of the national union’s June convention.

Officials of the Chicago Midwest Regional Joint Board say ejecting Michigan State Director Joe Daugherty was a necessary response to member complaints about the local’s failure to process grievances. Local 24’s 7,900 members in the Detroit area make up about 80 percent of the Michigan membership.

Many of Local 24’s sidelined leaders—including Daugherty—were elected to local positions December 11 and aimed to disaffiliate from the Joint Board, which maintains control over the local’s hefty dues flow. They say they were shut down because of this effort.

The Joint Board removed Daugherty, who is also an international vice president, claiming his criticisms of the board amounted to insubordination. Daugherty, who was appointed in 1999 to head up organizing in the city’s casinos, had arrived in Michigan fresh off HERE’s victorious six-year strike at Frontier Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

In that campaign, he earned the nickname “St. Joe”—and fame in HERE circles—for not missing a day on the picket line during the lengthy strike.

After learning he was fired, Daugherty staked out an overnight watch inside the union’s office. He said staffers from Chicago and Canada, flown in by the Joint Board for the takeover, kept him from placing phone calls and blared recordings of UNITE HERE President Bruce Raynor’s speeches at full volume.

Local 24 members and staff had angrily mobilized at the office and confronted the Joint Board staffers. Police evacuated the office the next day and chained the door at the request of the building manager.

Board leaders posted welcome signs for the new state director, Clayola Brown of New York.


UNITE HERE was born in 2004 of a merger of textile and laundry workers (UNITE) and hospitality workers (HERE). The marriage, at times uneasy, prompted pre-existing UNITE regional boards to offer affiliation to HERE locals. The Chicago Midwest board now includes 50,000 members in hundreds of UNITE and HERE locals in 11 states.
Local 24, the Joint Board’s largest affiliate, joined the umbrella organization three years ago, seeking greater institutional support for organizing projects at casinos, sports arenas, and the Detroit airport.

Len Lazich, a bartender at MGM Grand casino and chief steward, said the board made it impossible for Local 24 to conduct business, steadily siphoning resources from Detroit over the years. Lazich said the local sends the board more than $4 million a year, adding that since the affiliation, local staff has been cut by 60 percent.

Mickey Seawood, a steward who works in environmental services at the MGM Grand casino, said members felt the Joint Board broke its promises to bolster organizing.

“They never delivered,” she said.


Brown counters that Local 24 leaders had failed to process hundreds of grievances, some more than a year old. Officers, some elected just a month ago, are asking for documentation.

“They’re talking about all these hundreds of complaints, but no one has copies of them,” said Jackie Kaifesh, vice president of the local’s airport division.

Doris Boone-Hanna, who answers phones at the Marriott, says she has paperwork. In just the last year she said she has filed seven grievances. Boone-Hanna led an unsuccessful decertification campaign in 1989.

Among her 15 co-workers, Boone-Hanna says there are 18 grievances dating back to June that haven’t been handled yet. She says that under Daugherty’s watch, the local held unfair elections, paid stewards unevenly based on allegiance, and failed to notify members that their health co-pays had doubled.

Boone-Hanna blames Daugherty for not enforcing contract language on seniority. “I went home one night and I was No. 3 in seniority, and when I came back the next morning, I was No. 5,” she said. “I’ve been here 29 years, and I’m still on the midnight shift.”


In late 2003, Local 24 underwent the union’s standard treatment for troubled locals: It was placed in trusteeship after an investigation revealed financial mismanagement. Leaders were purged and the trusteeship ended in 2004.

Daugherty’s ouster, however, was not preceded by formal investigations. Brown maintains that the Joint Board may remove an appointed leader at will. Although Daugherty and the other officials maintain their elected offices in Local 24, the Joint Board has circulated letters advising employers to deal with the board directly. Local 24 claims the letters illegally strip the local of its authority.

Brown said the only hiccup in the takeover process was Local 24’s belligerent response. She said members and staff were disruptive and violent in a failed attempt to reclaim the office.

“Normally it does work quite smoothly,” she said. “I’ve been with the union 39 years, and I’ve never seen this kind of reaction.”
Brown’s administration is meeting with disgruntled members such as Boone-Hanna. Meanwhile, Local 24’s deposed leaders have set up headquarters across the street from the padlocked office. They are collecting signatures to disaffiliate from the Joint Board. The UNITE-HERE merger agreement stipulates that locals can leave joint boards by presenting member petitions to the International.

In the month following the takeover, around 4,000 members have signed petitions for disaffiliation, Lazich said. International vice presidents will resolve the affiliation and takeover disputes February 10 at the union’s executive board meeting in Washington, D.C.