Measuring the Cost of Union In-Fighting

By Hickey, Robert | Canadian Dimension, September-October 2009 | Go to article overview

Measuring the Cost of Union In-Fighting


Hickey, Robert, Canadian Dimension


IN 2004, THE CLOTHING AND TEXTILE UNION UNITE, merged with the hotel and gaming union, here. What began as the merger between two of North America's most progressive and activist-oriented unions has disintegrated into a destructive civil war.

Fierce internal politics are not new to the labour movement. The tools of union democracy provide rank-and-file members with accountability from their leaders and a source of strength for their organization. However, a divided house of labour hurts unions and working people in general. Such political in-fighting is especially harmful now. Many employers are using the current financial crisis to demand major concessions. Moreover, a divided labour movement may miss the opportunities for substantial labour law and health care reforms in the U.S.

What began as a split within UNITE HERE has rippled through the U.S. labour movement. On one side of the divide stand the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the breakaway faction of Workers' United against UNITE HERE. Many U.S. unions have lined up on one side or another, but most just want a quick resolution to the dispute. Some condemn SEIU's involvement, further heightening the divisions within the U.S. labour movement. At first, Canada appeared immune to the conflict engulfing our southern neighbours. In Ontario, the fight between Workers' United and UNITE HERE is now fully engaged. Why did this merger turn into a vitriolic divorce? Is Andy Stern, the president of SEIU, really the Darth Vader of the labour movement? Which faction gets to keep the $5 billion of assets held by the union-owned Amalgamated Bank?

These questions are ultimately less important than what it means for rank-and-file workers. As a union activist for twenty years, and no stranger to fierce internal union battles, the toll this fight is having on workers is distressing. I am not speaking in general terms of missed opportunities and distracted leaders. Rather, such internal disputes in unions cross an unmistakable line when tactics intentionally cause harm to rank-and-file members in order to advance one faction's political agenda. This is precisely what has happened to Diane Barnim and her co-workers at the Holiday Inn in St. Catherines, Ontario.

Prior to the merger in 2004, HERE and UNITE inspired hope that North America's labour movement was entering a period of revitalization. Many unions talked about the need to organize, but few undertook the organizational transformations necessary to make organizing a reality. In the decade preceding the merger, HERE and UNITE walked the talk and successfully organized tens of thousands of workers. Emerging leaders at that time, Bruce Raynor and John Wilhelm of UNITE and HERE respectively, represented a new wave of progressive, activist-oriented labour leaders. Raynor showed that even in the most hostile environments, southern U.S. states like Georgia and Alabama, unions could help workers organize through innovative and comprehensive organizing strategies. Wilhelm helped turn a union riddled with corruption and under U.S. government oversight into an organizing force that would bring housekeepers and other service sector workers out of poverty from Las Vegas to New Haven, Connecticut.

But by the end of 2008, the simmering divisions between Raynor and Wilhelm had turned into a public schism. Rather than watch the political purge of former UNITE leaders, staff and activists, Raynor decided to leave the merged union, taking more than 100,000 workers with him and formed Workers' United. While former leaders of UNITE led the exit, some workers from HERE'S traditional jurisdictions, such as hospitality and gaming, left with them. Workers' United quickly affiliated with SEIU. One can easily see how this struggle over the hearts and minds of workers, and the jurisdictional claims of unions, could escalate and consume the energy of both political factions. Wilhelm's faction now controls UNITE HERE politically, and they have Legitimate concerns over jurisdiction and the secession of members into a breakaway union. …

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