April 23, 2009
by Daniel Denvir and Paul Abowd
The 15 regional boards that seceded from UNITE HERE in March to create a new union in partnership with the Service Employees have not exactly made a clean break.
Allies of former UNITE President Bruce Raynor formed Workers United at a March 21 convention in Philadelphia, but not everyone in the city—much less the country—is on board.
Lynne Fox, president of the regional (or joint) board and a vice president of the new union, claims all 9,000 members in Philadelphia became part of Workers United. To prove member support, Fox and joint board staff are holding secret-ballot elections in dozens of shops, giving workers a choice: stay with UNITE HERE, or join the new partnership with SEIU. The premise for the breakaway campaign is member discontent. Still, several stay-or-go votes came weeks after the union’s founding, raising questions about its democratic bona fides.
“They’re acting more like a boss than a union,” said Doris Smith, president of a Philadelphia local representing public school food service workers which has opposed the breakaway union.
Regina James, a cafeteria worker, disagrees. She says UNITE leaders brought steward trainings and the local prospered when the joint board put the HERE local under trusteeship four years ago.
“UNITE HERE wants control of our local, and they’ll go back to using and abusing us again,” she added.
Most members don’t seem much involved. The joint board held a disaffiliation vote in mid-April, attracting 75 votes from 2,400 cafeteria workers. James says the 61-14 result proves workers want out of UNITE HERE.
But Workers United is bogged down with legal challenges and a member revolt within some shops. Hotel workers in the city say that a secret ballot vote to gauge workers’ support was tampered with, a claim the joint board rejects. “UNITE HERE won’t accept the election when it doesn’t go their way,” said Fox.
Workers United claims 150,000 members support the breakaway from the 450,000-strong International, headed by both Raynor and HERE leader John Wilhelm since their unions merged in 2004.
Civil war broke out when UNITE supporters realized that Raynor lacked the votes to remain in power at UNITE HERE’s upcoming convention. Leaders of the regional boards sued for divorce and headed for the door, attempting to take real estate and the Amalgamated Bank—which UNITE brought into the merger. Wilhelm says these assets became the International’s property after the two unions joined forces.
SEIU swooped in, offering to collect limited dues from Workers United members in exchange for organizing and legal support—essentially subsidizing the split. The two unions say they will organize among hotel and gaming workers in key HERE strongholds Las Vegas and Atlantic City, and elsewhere.
Wilhelm has filed suit against the secession attempt, a proceeding that will last for months.
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Meanwhile, a battle for members’ hearts and minds continues. Workers United staff has launched a nationwide campaign using petitions and elections to prove popular support for the split. In New York and Pittsburgh, joint board officials claim overwhelming victories in large hotel locals.
But the breakaway attempt has encountered resistance in Philadelphia, where even joint board leaders were divided on whether or not to split.
The president of Philadelphia’s hotel workers union supports Workers United, citing a more stable financial future with SEIU, but members at the Radisson Hotel have bucked the new union. Corean Holloway, the local vice president, works in laundry at the Radisson, and says workers’ April 1 vote to stay with UNITE HERE was tampered with. The joint board claimed a 42-12 victory, but more than 30 workers at the hotel have since signed affidavits saying they voted to stay with UNITE HERE—a charge Fox calls a “baldfaced lie.”
Holloway says joint board staff told her to warn co-workers they would lose their union contract, pay dues increases, and face layoffs if they didn’t support the new union.
When Workers United officials postponed a scheduled vote at Philadelphia’s Hyatt hotel, workers supporting UNITE HERE gathered dozens of cards in lieu of an election. “People don’t want their dues funding the people trying to break up their union,” said Jamie Hamod, a steward and server.
Aaron Seiz, a host and bargaining committee member, says 112 out of 152 Hyatt workers had already signed a petition to remain with UNITE HERE. Fox doesn’t recognize those petitions, calling instead for a secret-ballot election. UNITE HERE says the elections have no legal bearing.
‘SLAP IN THE FACE’
Valerie Halls, a barista in the Hyatt lobby, calls the Workers United actions a “slap in the face, just two months after winning our contract.” Hyatt employees won a 16-month contract battle in February, while joint board officials were making plans to leave.
Before the split, workers received now-infamous purple flyers urging them to support the new union. After Workers United formed, Halls and others received robocalls and house visits from the union.
The joint board had pulled two of her co-workers off the job months ago. No one knew why until they appeared on house visits targeting workers less involved in the local.
The split from UNITE HERE has been all about speed. Raynor, with SEIU assistance, focused attacks on Wilhelm’s organizing methods, claiming they produced results too slowly. Their secession campaign was lightning quick. In a matter of weeks, Workers United had pinned its gray logo to the wall of a Philadelphia hotel ballroom, as the June UNITE HERE convention loomed.
In the stampede to leave, Philadelphia workers say the democratic process has been trampled, and many resent being consulted about the fate of their union, after the fact.
“This was decided over a month ago by Lynne Fox, before we were ever asked,” Hamod said.