March 25, 2009

Service Employees Union Joins Move to Break Up UNITE HERE


The months-long tug of war within UNITE HERE continued in March when UNITE-controlled regional councils voted to leave the union. UNITE leaders embraced a partnership with the Service Employees (SEIU), and signaled they would form a new union, Workers United, to compete for members in HERE’s hotel and gaming jurisdictions—while snatching as many members as possible on the way out.

HERE leaders failed to stop the regional board votes in court, which they say are unrepresentative and violate the union’s constitution. At a mid-March executive board meeting, HERE allies vowed to recover ownership of the boards’ property and funds, and moved to slap lawsuits on officials who used union funds in the secession attempt. UNITE and HERE merged in 2004, but their clashes over control of resources and organizing strategy are reaching a fever pitch.

The votes to secede were cast by around 1,000 delegates nationwide, who are elected in some regional boards and handpicked in others. In Philadelphia, 14 of the 21 voting delegates were paid staff. At the Pennsylvania-wide meeting, however, hundreds of elected delegates voted unanimously to leave UNITE HERE.

The regional boards, called “joint boards,” scheduled a late-March convention in Philadelphia for Workers United, where the color scheme is sure to be some shade of purple.

SEIU President Andy Stern offered UNITE HERE a place within the Service Employees union in late January. HERE declined, but International President Bruce Raynor, UNITE’s pre-merger leader, pursued talks.

“We see this as having the big brother on the football team,” said a UNITE-side staffer.

The secessionist campaign—aimed at discrediting HERE leaders and the merger itself—was launched with help from Steve Rosenthal, a consultant with ties to SEIU. It included robo calls and mailings soliciting disgruntled members, and a website alleging lavish spending among HERE leaders.

Raynor cited organizing failures as the cause of the breakup. His allies compose a distinct minority on the executive board and among the union’s 460,000 members. He is expected to lose control of the union at its convention in June, prompting dozens of UNITE-aligned International vice presidents to resign in support of Workers United.

Citing Stern’s meddling in UNITE HERE affairs, HERE allies responded by preparing a breakaway from the Change to Win federation, and approving talks to rejoin the AFL-CIO.


Soon after the secession votes, SEIU organizers joined UNITE leaders in shops, aiming to collect hundreds of thousands of signatures from both members and staff to prove support for the joint board secession.

Members found mailers at their homes in early March, informing them to “look for organizers in the purple UNITE HERE shirts carrying petitions.” The petitions are a tactical ploy, not a decertification attempt.

To further strengthen the referendum, the Pennsylvania joint board is holding secret-ballot elections in every local, where members will choose whether to join Workers United. The New York/New Jersey joint board is holding similar votes for 2,000 members in its hotel division.

UNITE secessionists want to prove support in traditional HERE strongholds, which HERE promises to defend.

“We’re trying to make this union as internally strong and bulletproof as possible to fend off any member-grabbing,” says Jeff McCaffrey, president of Detroit Local 24’s gaming division.

John Wilhelm, who headed the pre-merger HERE, had sought to preserve unity even as it evaporated.


HERE leaders want to extend what they see as the merger’s strategic advantages. As UNITE targets like laundry supplier Cintas grow their operations in hotels and casinos, HERE says the union should build from union strongholds and mount coordinated attacks on the corporations’ consolidating supply chains.

In a report defending the 2004 marriage, HERE leaders pointed to unprecedented contract gains.

“Over 3,000 laundry workers in Las Vegas now have free family health insurance—something that was unattainable for them prior to the merger,” said the report.

HERE argues that lengthy organizing campaigns (with heavy staff oversight) are often necessary to create strong worker committees in hotels. They prioritize contract standards over swift membership growth, and argue that the union must cultivate member-leaders who will build, maintain, and expand the union.

Wilhelm’s allies criticize earlier deals that SEIU and UNITE struck with service-sector employers that let the corporations choose organizing sites and created low-wage tiers at unionized companies. They predict several long-term organizing drives will produce 27,000 new members in casinos in coming years.

Joint board leaders, in response, criticize HERE for not pulling the trigger soon enough, and wasting money in the process. Results don’t arrive overnight, counters HERE. “Raynor’s claim to fame is a 17-year struggle to organize at [southern textile giant] J.P. Stevens,” said Pilar Weiss, spokeswoman at Las Vegas Local 226.


While the union split in two, joint board officials filled in some trench lines at the local level, for now. UNITE forces gave up their takeover of Detroit’s Local 24, a 7,900-strong local made up primarily of HERE shops. The rationale was practical: Local 24’s leaders would have fought the creation of the new union.

Local 24 officers regained access to their offices, as well as the Motor City Casino, where the company had locked out union representatives while the factions squabbled. Elected local leaders also took back exclusive rights at the bargaining table.

The union’s crisis couldn’t come at a worse time for members at Detroit’s Riverside Hotel, where workers have been paid behind schedule for months. When workers have received checks, they’ve often bounced. “I don’t come to my job to do charity work,” said Carrie Shipman, a housekeeper at the hotel. Hundreds of protesters from a nearby labor convention flooded the lobby in February to confront management.

In all this, workers say their union representatives have been difficult to find.


“HERE never had a sound vision or functional plan for organizing in their core industry,” says joint board staffer Pete DeMay, who was dispatched to Detroit. He sees Workers United’s speedier, stripped-down organizing bringing in non-union casinos in the region, expanding a base among casino dealers, and building density in Chicago hotels, where DeMay says about half of the city’s hotel workers lack a union.

HERE officials say UNITE’s new partnership with SEIU is illegal, and reversible through the union’s democratic process—or in court.

Other union leaders are aghast that the bitter fight could drag through the courts. With public support for the Employee Free Choice Act in the balance, presidents of the Steelworkers and Autoworkers pleaded for the union to end the merger and seek “reasonable alternatives” to open warfare. The UAW also announced plans to work with SEIU in the gaming industry.

“We’re not relinquishing that jurisdiction,” said DeMay. “You can call it raiding if you want—call it what you want to call it.”

Ernest Lemond resigned as president of Local 24’s airport division to support Workers United. “People should have the right to vote for the union they choose, and if they want to come to a new union, let them,” he said.

March 13, 2009

Call in the Big Guns

One of the country's more progressive unions, UNITE HERE is splitting into its component parts five years after merging. UNITE's former president, Bruce Raynor brought big money but a dying industry. HERE--organizing in hotels and casinos, was in need of cashflow, but had big potential for growth. Both sides have set up web sites, HERE to defend the merger, and UNITE to explain why it needs to end.

Raynor expected Wilhelm to retire by the time the union's convention arrived in summer 2009-- or find a place in the AFL-CIO leadership--after which UNITE would assume control over the whole union. Wilhelm remains however, now with a majority of members from his industries, and a majority on the decision-making executive board. HERE is poised to take control of the union. Raynor cozied up to Andy Stern, president of the nation's "fastest growing" union of service employees, who offered UNITE-side leaders a partnership. Civil war has broken out at the exact wrong time for labor--EFCA entered congress just days ago.

Politico's Ben Smith has followed the story of both unions, which are expending enormous staff time and energy fighting for control of the union--precisely because they envision an organizing windfall when, or if, EFCA passes. Wilhelm wants to keep the union together, maintaining access to the UNITE-owned Amalgamated Bank--with $5 billion in assets--for his time intensive hotel organizing campaigns, which attempt to cultivate strong worker leaders. Raynor changed the governance structure of the bank to ice out HERE leaders, and has since encouraged a secession from the merger, claiming HERE doesn't organize members quickly enough. His allies voted to form a new union, and are trying to gather member support and move into hotel and casino organizing. HERE wants to break from Change to Win, and rejoin the AFL-CIO, but the AFL recently lent its support to Stern's new organizing initiative in gaming, a key HERE jurisdiction.

UNITE is now drawing on their lethal weapon, too--an old friend of Bruce Raynor's, to make the case for a split from HERE.

March 10, 2009

Ann Arbor Palestine Film Festival

Waltz with Bashir is on my list without doubt, but first: This week's Ann Arbor Palestine Film Festival looks pretty amazing. The whole thing opens tomorrow March 11, at the Michigan Theater. I'm looking forward to Hardball, a 2006 documentary by Suha Arraf:

"Sakhnin is a small Arab town inside Israel where life is far from normal. Despite hardships, Sakhnin, like the rest of the world, is mad about football and has produced an edgy, hungry football team that managed, against all odds, to win Israel's national cup in 2004. As the drama of the new football season unfolds, Hardball reveals why the underdog team has attracted such a devoted and fervent following among thousands of Arab fans across the country."

And Saturday night, a must see by Jackie Salloum:

Opening Night tomorrow, buy tickets here.
Organizer Hena Ashraf will be blogging it.

Charter Schools: Oil and Water?

from the March 2009, Labor Notes (print)

Ann Crowley had always opposed charter schools, but sick of decades of managerial incompetence in Detroit’s traditional schools, she changed her mind. She even called for charters to be housed in union headquarters during her campaign to lead the Detroit Federation of Teachers this winter. The middle school instructor thinks veteran teachers like her could do charters the right way: by opening a community-owned, unionized school within the remains of a crumbling school district.

Her slate lost badly, but has kept the idea alive, finding a model in Los Angeles-based Green Dot Schools, a growing unionized charter organization. She also found the center of a contentious debate. Everyone agrees that public schools need help, but teachers and union members disagree over how to engage the charter school movement and its largely unorganized workforce—or whether to do so at all.

In Los Angeles, Green Dot has grown to 18 schools over the last decade—and expanded to the Bronx this year, with the blessing of New York’s United Federation of Teachers president (and national AFT president) Randi Weingarten. Green Dot touts its open access, small classes, and schools no larger than 525 students. Along with mandatory parent-volunteer hours, the schools stay open later, which means more time with students and a longer work day for teachers.

They emphasize local control for teachers and principals in hiring and curriculum decisions, also making them responsible for a school’s budget. Green Dot teachers laud professional development programs which, they say, have helped raise test scores and graduation rates. The schools are in demand. At Green Dot’s founding site, in LA’s Inglewood community, 685 students applied for 175 spots in this year’s freshman class. Students, recruited first from the neighborhoods where the school sits, must fill out a short application and an essay expressing interest. Then they are entered into a lottery.

Los Angeles teachers say that this approach doesn’t ensure universal access, though, because it passively screens out foster children and English language learners. “If they were to try to be truly public with the lottery system, they would make sure that every student’s name in
that attendance area was entered into the lottery, and not just the kids whose parents came to some meeting some night,” said Alex Caputo-Pearl, a teacher at Crenshaw High School in
south Los Angeles.

Green Dot schools look different than the district. The schools are mostly staffed by young teachers, and teacher turnover is high. At Locke High School in the Watts neighborhood of LA, teachers petitioned the school board to break the school into eight smaller charters two years ago. Green Dot came in, fired 80 teachers, and made everyone re-apply for positions.

Despite attempts by the AFT/NEA affiliate United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) to keep the school in the district, Locke teachers sided with Green Dot, and joined instead the Asociacion de Maestros Unidos. AMU, which is part of the NEA-affiliated California Teachers Association, was created in 2000 to be the union at Green Dot.

The AMU contract has a just-cause provision instead of the district’s tenure system, a longer teacher workday, and a no-strike clause. District die-hards charge that AMU is a company union, but AMU’s collaborative approach, maintained by monthly meetings between union and
company, has still produced battles with management. After agreeing to re-open the contract, AMU is fighting Green Dot’s attempt to create a probationary period during which teachers could be fired at will in their first two years.

AMU president Abigail Garcia said the union wouldn’t budge, noting that at least 50 percent of AMU teachers are in their first or second year. AMU has also questioned the school’s commitment to school site autonomy. “At times, we feel like Green Dot’s idea of ‘teacher-led’ schools is just to ask teachers to provide input before making final decisions,” Garcia said.

“Teacher-led” schools are a mirage, other teacher union activists say, considering Green Dot’s corporatized management. Founded by Democratic Party booster Steve Barr, Green Dot has an unelected management team led by a CEO who is a financial consultant with no teaching background. Michael Fiorillo, a New York teacher and union reform leader, said that corporate management entrenched itself in education through skillful marketing. Among its aims? To make teaching no longer a career.

“The idealism and the eagerness of teachers to improve the lives of their students is manipulated,” he said. “They’re not going to have tenure or seniority, and eventually they won’t have a union.”

Despite teacher misgivings, charters are taking off. The LA school district, has offered unused space within 40 public schools to charter start- ups. In response, UTLA has reconvened a task force on charter schools and is organizing forums with charter teachers, beginning with those already unionized. Teachers at Accelerated Charter just gathered cards from 80 percent of the workforce in a bid to be the first independent charter school in LA to join the 48,000-strong UTLA. In January, teachers at a charter in Brooklyn signed cards for representation. Now they’re fighting a fierce anti-union campaign in which administrators are trying to recruit students to undermine the teacher drive.

“People in corporate education are wetting their pants at the prospect of these charters organizing,” Fiorillo said. And union infighting may be on the wane. Despite their disagreements, UTLA and AMU joined in a January march, turning out 15,000 to protest California’s fresh cuts to public education.

Charters in Detroit, enrolling 50,000 students, have had mixed results. Among the 12 charter schools authorized by the district, some are failing, and some were never opened in the first place, leading to allegations of misappropriated funds. As 70,000 students have left the district in the last decade—and a $400 million deficit rings up this year—the situation looks increasingly bleak. The school board has fired the superintendent and agreed to state oversight this winter. Expectations are low: state overseers earlier this decade splurged on bloated, no-bid private contracts for food service and school renovation.

Crowley, the Detroit charter convert, says schools have not improved since teachers walked out for over two weeks in 2006 to protest dire conditions. Teachers’ pay rose slightly, but many buildings remain undersupplied and sometimes hazardous.

About 200 groups have applied to open new charters in Detroit, but Crowley wants to beat them to it and run her school with experienced teachers. “We can do it on our own if they let us,” she said. It’s unclear whether the Green Dot model would work for the veteran teachers in Detroit, as the organization prefers to hire new teachers to keep costs low. And, as such franchises grow, Fiorillo believes they will become increasingly driven by profit, managed by non-educators, and antagonistic to the union that Garcia and other teachers in Los Angeles are fighting to maintain.

Still, the frustration of years in an inadequate system is leading Crowley to look for ways that teachers can build their own institutions—to retain a culture of collective bargaining and control, which is trickling into charter school break rooms nationwide.