UNITE HERE Split Gets Even Messier

It’s been three months since UNITE split from HERE, morphing into Workers United (WU) and affiliating with the Service Employees (SEIU). The battle, primarily over money and members, rages on after settlement talks fizzled in May and International President Bruce Raynor resigned from UNITE HERE. Three days later he took the top post at WU as the breakaway union fights for viability in court and in the shops.

UNITE HERE, now controlled by hospitality president John Wilhelm, rejected a settlement proposal from WU and SEIU President Andy Stern. They offered $45 million to UNITE HERE over the next five years, in exchange for the right to organize hotel and gaming workers.

Those jurisdictions are in contention regardless as WU tries to hijack hotel organizing campaigns, leading UNITE HERE to retaliate by disrupting SEIU drives. Both sides are awaiting a July court ruling on the legality of WU’s secession.
At stake are the union’s major assets, a 30-story Manhattan headquarters and the Amalgamated Bank.

Raynor joined up with SEIU, preferring an organizing model stressing quick growth, often through partnership deals with employers. UNITE HERE also seeks such deals, but as a first step in a longer process of forming worker committees to fight for contract standards. HERE leaders criticize a 2005 Stern-Raynor secret deal to organize food service workers, which resulted in weak contracts due to shallow worker involvement.

Workers United’s growth strategy is in rough shape. After claiming 150,000 members supported the March split, the union collected dues from only 100,000 in April. Plans to peel away members in Detroit, Phoenix, and New England faltered, and some employers have withheld dues at Wilhelm’s request. The union is burning through a $1 million loan from SEIU during a critical phase in its battle for legitimacy.


On suspicion that UNITE-side allies were removing documents from the International offices in New York, Wilhelm hired private security to break into Raynor’s office in May. They uncovered memos, dated as early as October 2008, detailing plans to “take turf from HERE” and “control all resources” in a “high road campaign” that still manages to “highlight their dirt.”

One memo instructs UNITE affiliates to “kick out HERE staff” in Phoenix, San Antonio, and Indianapolis, areas where UNITE HERE hopes to grow.

But WU’s attempts to snap up hotel organizing-in-process have been mostly stymied.

Wilhelm’s allies won neutrality in 2005 at the new Phoenix Sheraton, gaining a foothold in right-to-work Arizona. Workers signed cards in May, but not before fighting off SEIU, which sent staff to steer workers into the new union instead. “They thought this was just an easy target,” said Bethany Holmes, a UNITE HERE organizer.

Workers United’s raid threw the drive into disarray, forcing UNITE HERE staff and workers to expedite their committee building and call for representation more quickly. Workers stuck with who they knew, supporting UNITE HERE. At the Phoenix Airport, the fight for representation rights rages on, while SEIU, defeated at the Sheraton, looks down the road to Texas.

UNITE HERE organizers in San Antonio see an opportunity to transform an expanding tourist center into a Las Vegas-like union stronghold. At the town’s giant Hyatt hotel, workers won recognition by card check months ago.

Workers United, with help from SEIU organizers, now claims to be the bargaining representative and the company has been happy to oblige, meeting behind closed doors with WU, which has nearly no support from workers.

When Hyatt management gave Workers United access to the shop—barring UNITE HERE—angry workers confronted the raiders in the cafeteria and gathered community allies outside the hotel to shame management. SEIU staffers are “worse than scabs, because they’re undermining us and using other people’s dues money to do it,” says a Hyatt worker.



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On top of it all, a group of workers filed a petition to decertify after UNITE HERE presented cards. The NLRB called a July election with both unions on the ballot. UNITE HERE organizers fear Workers United can play only a spoiler role.

Wilhelm sent a letter to employers in late March asking them not to recognize Workers United. Several companies have responded by holding onto dues and blocking union representatives from shops.

The letters even targeted industrial laundries, where UNITE-side locals have represented workers since long before the 2004 merger with HERE. The NLRB recently granted WU bargaining rights at Royal Laundry in California after the company tried to use Wilhelm’s letter to shut down talks.


At Local 96 in New Jersey, now part of WU, workers at the Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick won a union and have been bargaining for months. With Wilhelm’s letter in hand, the company severed talks at a critical stage, calling WU a phony union. The NLRB unexpectedly threw the case to the Change to Win board to resolve.

UNITE HERE insists the short-term disruptions are worth the struggle to keep hotel workers in one union—the union that’s developed a national strategy for organizing in that industry.

“You’re putting members at a huge disadvantage if they’re expected to negotiate with some of these major chains and not be part of the same union,” said Local 11 President Tom Walsh.

With SEIU staff stretched thin by multi-front battles, UNITE HERE has gone on offense. A crew of researchers was summoned to attack Stern and SEIU, while other staff contacted legislators and leafletted worksites in Arizona and California, where SEIU is organizing public sector workers and security guards.

Meanwhile, at dozens of hotels, contracts with major chains open this summer. In Los Angeles, Local 11 members voted to raise dues and expand the strike fund in preparation.

They face trouble at Disneyland from several directions. Food service workers there split to join WU, while the company is attacking the free family health coverage of workers at the park’s three hotels. Local 11’s challenge, Walsh said, is to fight both the employer and a rival union eager to cut a deal.

While UNITE HERE shuffles staff to fend off attacks and undermine Stern, the union is trying to maintain the momentum of its “Hotel Workers Rising” campaign. The nationwide drive using aggressive tactics and coordinated contract campaigns notched victories in 2006, but it’s hard to imagine the union’s focus can be as steady this year.

Raynor and Stern are pushing for binding arbitration to settle the dispute and reopen the bank vaults, garnering support from a growing number of union leaders desperate to see the feud end.

Central labor councils have condemned SEIU for aiding the split, supporting UNITE HERE while the union refuses any settlement that allows SEIU to organize hotel and gaming workers.

The factions head back to court in July, but neither side expects the dispute to end there. Says one Workers United organizer, “It’s ugly, and it’s on both sides.”


Anonymous (not verified) | 07/28/09

The first proposal set out by Raynor (before Stern was a party to the deal) was an "amicable divorce" - that UNITE leave with it's members, assets, and jurisdiction, minus a cash "settlement" to HERE. This was unequivocally rejected by Wilhelm.

The open hostilities began with the HERE-dominated executive board summarily firing whole departments within the international they regarded as Unite-tilted: communications, legal, etc.

In the circumstances, I regard Raynor's turn towards SEIU as largely a defensive one. Raynor, after all, also has a huge ego and must see that his union is likely to be swallowed by Stern - after all, he chose to merge with HERE so as not to merge with SEIU in 2005 (an offer Stern had put on the table). To say "he simply could have walked away," when Wilhelm repeatedly made clear that the only way he would be allowed to do this was if he walked away with nothing is not realistic.

Jurisdiction was the remaining bargaining chip that Raynor had, given his loss of executive control of Unite Here.

Of course, the jurisdictional question has taken on a new meaning since SEIU's involvement, but anyone thinking that declarations against "raiding" and for the "sanctity of jurisdiction" represent a benign or unequivocally progressive stance clearly doesn't have even a passing knowledge of labor history!

No-one should miss the point that the SEIU-NUHW relationship mirrors the Unite Here-Workers United relationship, not the SEIU-Unite Here relationship. Just because it's possible to put a black hat on Andy in both cases shouldn't obscure the fact that SEIU is on different sides of the equation in the two cases.

Anonymous (not verified) | 07/26/09

There seems to be alot of annomosity towards the Yalies. While the Yalies are annoying and there are a good amount of them working for the former HERE, there are many places where this is not the case. On gaming for example the organizing staff is almost entirely made up of former rank-and-file leaders who made the commitment to come out of the shop and be on staff. I worked UNITE before the merger and was utterly disgusted with the total lack of leadership development. The entire structure was set up to prevent any type of democracy and keep Joint Board leaders secure in their jobs no matter how mediocre they were. For years it seemed like the UNITE approach to organizing was "nickle and a card check". There was absolutely no understanding of internal organizing, and that in order to successfully do new organizing you have to win good contracts and really develop a strong committee system and a network of strong shop stewards who have the ability to run their union. Instead it was a culture of ego centric Joint Board managers and a terrible cult of personality. For the most part only a select few were considered "smart enough" to negotiate contracts and workers only "got in the way" (I'm not kidding or exaggerating, these were direct quotes from joint board managers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and The South).

The pink sheeting culture that exists in a few pockets of the former HERE is a problem but pales in comparison to the real philosophical problems and top down unionism of the former UNITE. In addition if the only reason to blow apart UNITE HERE and divide the labor movement was because a few former HERE staff went a little nuts with the personal disclosure stuff, it shows the ridiculousness of Raynor and Stern and all of their lackies.

The simple truth is this... Bruce Raynor did not have the votes to be reelected president of UNITE HERE! Rather than reach some kind of peaceful compromise or just let the constitutional process work, Bruce decided to go another way to save his job. Had SEIU not gotten involved in the internal politics of UNITE HERE this whole conflict would be over by now Bruce Raynor would be looking for a new job and we all could get back to trying to build the labor movement. Sadly Bruce decided to drag workers through this mess to protect his turf and his ego and many (not all) former UNITE staff had decided to follow him over that cliff.

"Raid" Rage (not verified) | 07/15/09

Again, Abowd is attempting to label any organizing actions by WU as "raiding." How is WU "raiding" hotel jurisdictions when hospitality workers have voted to leave UH and form WU? Abowd refuses to acknowledge that there have been workers across ALL of the former UH jurisdictions who have left UH, for a number of very legitimate reasons. Instead, the "raiding" label is thrown at so many actions that it becomes meaningless. Again, just consistent one-sided reporting from Abowd means that Labor Notes readers don't get the full story. It seems Labor Notes is resigned to an incomplete knowledge of this complicated fight, and happy with writing off WU, just so that it can throw some long-awaited punches at SEIU.

Anonymous (not verified) | 07/15/09

I am a HERE organizer and I can truly say that if we don't act like we have drank the red cool-aid we will be forced out. I have witnessed this recently with a strong organizer. Because of the organizers consistent questions to the "plan", and their so called lack of commitment, HERE has yet again hurt the movement and the locals strength with another firing. Claiming that this organizer was not dedicated enough. I cant wait to quit.

Also some advise for the next Union that try's to take us over. Due your homework, don't be a corporate union. Dont organizer our shops, just our staff.

Anonymous (not verified) | 07/02/09

wilhelm continues to crow about union democracy and labor notes continues to buy it. meanwhile how about reporting that 35% of the delegates to the UH convention this week were full time paid staff? if that were the teamsters convention labor notes would blow a gasket about it. how about the constitutional changes they enacted that add even more layers between members and the election of the leaders of the union?

shouldn't someone at the very least acknowledge the editor of this magazine's connection to HERE?

i'm certainly not going to try to defend workers united here, but i do want to point out that no union in the american labor movement has ever signed any agreement with anyone else over jurisdictions. and every union in the american labor movement has at some time or another organized in health care, which is SEIU's core jurisdiction, INCLUDING UNITE HERE!!! its stupid to even suggest that workers united or SEIU should stay out of hotel organizing and that UH should have some kind of exclusive right to it. NOBODY else in the labor movement has anything similar to that.

mischa | 07/02/09

The reader is incorrect. Jane Slaughter, Mischa Gaus and Paul Abowd are the editors of Labor Notes, and none have any ties to HERE.

Anonymous (not verified) | 06/30/09

right on!!!! Down with the Yale organizers. These people never will understand the difficultie of todays worker. I think these people were trained there to bring down the entire laboR Movement. Down with their buisness union philosophy. Long live be workers!!!!! One big union.

Anonymous (not verified) | 06/27/09

You know, many of the problems the unite side had in working with here are legitimate. Frankly HERE's organizing culture was in need of serious reform. Whoever does their accounting should probably be fired. And it is a fact that HERE refused to lift a finger to help win unite's cintas campaign--- probably because it was in their interest for unite's membership numbers to shrink, not grow, so that here could assume full control sooner than later.

But the events of the past year really dwarf the problems of that bad marriage. By attempting, in the most blatantly unethical and deceitful manner, to hijack here's jurisdictions, unite and seiu have thrown away all credibility. No one will ever trust them again. The disgust for andy and bruce goes to the very, very top of other unions, both ctw and the afl.

It would be a very different matter if unite tried to get their members and assets back and leave. Everyone would have supported them on that. But instead, this bizarre and repugnant attempt to steal another union's core industrial jurisdictions has polarized labor opinion against them so badly that it actually appears they may fail to even get their own assets out when all this is over. What a tragic, awful, nixonian miscalculation.

It marks, in fact, the end of the woodruff era at seiu. Long-championed organizing principles like industrial unionism (principles seiu split the entire labor movement over!) have been discarded with a shrug by people who likely never believed in them in the first place.

Woodruff, Stern and company were already headed for a very mixed legacy in light of Change To Win's utter failure. But with this move, they are certain to be judged harshly by labor history. They should go ahead and retire now- let Andy focus on getting press hits and hob-nobbing with rich liberal beltway dilettantes. Give anna the union now and let her finish her task of transitioning seiu from labor union to centrist lobby firm.

Anonymous (not verified) | 06/26/09

while the actions of SEIU are disgusting, they were telegraphed by SEIU towards many other unions just before and after the change to win split occurred. the fact that UNITE HERE broke with the rest of the labor movement in alliance with SEIU means that they are now being forced to sleep in a bed they helped make. this of course means nothing to the workers who are now suffering sub par representation on both sides of the battle lines. as a lifelong organizer, SEIU's approach does not represent "organizing", it is corporate in every anti-union sense of the word. good luck to the remnants of UNITE HERE and may all of us other unions continue to watch our own back and theirs.

Anonymous (not verified) | 06/26/09

pretty one sided. HERE commitment to committees sounds good until you understand what workers must suffer through to become committee members. They must undergo a series of humiliating deeply personal confessions to a variety of staff and other members.
Please try to imagine this: you are an undocumented room cleaner sick of low wages and disrespect on the job. You want to stand up and fight for better conditions, but before you are allowed to do that a white yale educated man tells you you must share emotional, physical and sexual abuses with co-workers and staff or you will not be allowed to join the committee. That is exactly what happens. Exactly.
The HERE committee model is a cancer on the entirety of the labor movement. Let's build committees and educate members -but not like them.

Anonymous (not verified) | 07/02/09

I'd like to second this comment; the organizing culture of HERE, particularly that coming out of Los Angeles, CA and New Haven, CT is incredibly sick. And no amount of raiding, treachery, or union-busting by SEIU has changed that. In fact, the SEIU/WU garbage only made this behavior more entrenched and the internal culture more unbearable.

HERE uses a modified version of the Synanon Game to "push" organizers into accepting commands from their leads.

They also make their hiring/recruiting of staff and activists conditional on that potential recruit disclosing painful information like sexual abuse or estranged family members. They claim this "builds leadership" because it allows people to confront their past and learn from their past troubles to gain confidence in themselves.

HOWEVER, in practice, this information is generally used to apply pressure on those recruits during a "push", which can be for anything from a personal goal to a direct order. It's also not uncommon to see this deeply personal info thrown out, in mixed company, in team or strategy meetings to pressure people into anything from cancelling days off, to missing doctors appointments, to "trusting" a lead's directives more.
EXAMPLE: "I don't think you have a problem with doing 7 house visits in 2 days by yourself. I think this is about your ex-husband and how he never let you feel like you were capable of anything. Vales mejor que esta, mujer!"

It's also not uncommon to have this same information brought up in a captive audience meeting where everyone in the meeting but the "target" is a lead of some form, greatly undermining an organizer's ability to "push back".
EXAMPLE: "I think you need to check you outrageous sense of entitlement, mister. The three of us have more than 15 years experience each! So you think about that the next time you want to educate US on the 'needs of the campaign'!"

The thing about all of this, is that if you talk to a HERE-side believer, they'll try to point out that it's only weak humans, college-educated white males in particular, people who have no connection with their own emotions that have a problem with "sharing" and "being vulnerable"– or the double-speak favorite: "building a relationship with their lead".

But in the case of Los Angeles, where 90% of the organizers come out of the shop; something like 4 out of every 5 workers on a "leave of absence" to organize with Local 11, and 1 out of 3 "staff organizers" have either been fired or pressured into leaving, or quit in protest, desperation, or exhaustion.

The turnover rate is as dizzying as it is soul-crushing.

Of course, the apologists will say "the real leaders that came out of the shop are still here"; "this work is hard, not for everyone"; "the people who left weren't committed enough. They weren't real leaders." This last comment is the most common, and really is the saddest, most despicable way to talk about a member-organizer or a member-activist who was pushed out by the staff apparatus.

These former-organizers are often the aforementioned "undocumented housekeepers". And the sad reality is that these people DID share these dark secrets or painful memories, they DID "swallow the koolaid", and soldiered on because they believed in their union, warts and all; so they got active to bring the union to other workers in their industry.

But when they ran afoul of a director, talked back during a "push session" aka Synanon game; if they went "off the program" by "questioning leadership", then suddenly the housekeeper-turned-organizer got purged from the local, frozen out of the committee, and everyone she or he was friends with at the union had to meet with their respective leads to "check in" about "not going negative." If these people came out of a shop where there was a union drive but no union contract, they are just plain fired. If they came out of a shop with a contract, they get their job back; and their shop steward is put on threat-level red anytime the former "LOA" tries to get involved on a volunteer basis.

This is the really painful reality of the HERE organizing culture.

But whereas SEIU relies on a failed model of corporate partnership and TOTAL theft of members, resources, and campaign structure; HERE relies on a fiefdom of "member-leaders" who came out of the Yale Graduate Student Union and assume extremely powerful, but generally UNelected positions (Staff Directors, Organizing Directors, Trustees, etc.) within major locals and army of shopfloor activists who participate within a "militancy without democracy" framework that shockingly mirrors SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaigns in the 90s.

It's the Yalies (including Wilhelm) who make the main decisions, which are then compartmentalized and "messaged" to the leads of different departments: organizing, boycotts, research, student organizing, community etc. The leads of those departments then have meetings where they "message" the necessary tasks to the staff/interns/on-site volunteers. Once those staff/interns/on-site volunteers have been briefed on what they are supposed to do, they have to present to their leads their plan for "organizing" members/non-union workers/students/clergy around the preset plan, providing specific "recruitment numbers" and comprehensive plans for hitting those numbers.

According to HERE top-brass: People who have a problem with any of these things are clearly just not committed enough to bringing transparent and democratic justice to the workers. Why, in fact, failure to recognize any of the FACTS you've just read as anything but the absolute, unerring face of union democracy clearly means an unhealthy sympathy for SEIU. Because after all, if you're not with HERE, you're with the purple people eaters. 2 + 1 = 2

Funny, i though that the book Orwell wrote about the labor movement was "the road to wigan pier"...

Anonymous (not verified) | 06/26/09

I am confused, did UniteHERE subscribe to 350,000 yearly issues of Labor Notes. Interesting you bring up Phoenix since the Hotel campaign, going on since 2005 still had no organizing committee in place when the split occurred. Plus in Phoenix HERE folks especially Local 11 have been destroying any hope for workers in the Laundries. I know because I am in the middle of it. Shouldn’t LN research a little better about what is going on out here in this crazy battle? I ma not a big SEIU fan either, but this battle is not about SEIU it is about members who have had enough of their dues money going to Whilhelm and his cultish Organizing department for the last five years and did nothing to improve or grow our union.

Anonymous (not verified) | 06/26/09

As a recent college graduate who is (was?) extremely excited about becoming an organizer and working to build a strong progressive labor movement, these internal battles are extremely disheartening to me. I'm really shocked at what Stern and Raynor are doing, particularly the raids on hotels. They're no better than the corporations they're fighting--like the person quoted in the article said, they're worse, because they're using members' dues to do all this dirty work. If Raynor and Stern don't believe in building committee and negotiating strong contracts, that's fine. I think it's dead wrong, but it's fine. But to actively undermine efforts by UNITE HERE to do these things, diverting resources from both SEIU and UNITE HERE to deal with the former's attacks on the latter, is just wrong.

Anonymous (not verified) | 06/26/09

oh, I see from the last line you actually did speak to someone from WU.

I couldn't tell otherwise.

Carry on, Ivy League laborites.