From merger to civil war: Measuring the cost of union infighting

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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 infighting 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.

Conflict’s impact spreads to Canada

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. Here 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.

Unions that walked the talk

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. 

Divisions go public

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. 

Why has the promise of union renewal descended into self-destructive internecine conflict? 

First, there are credible doubts that the merger was a step forward for the two organizations in the first place.  In Ontario, UNITE and HERE never really merged. The political and cultural divide between the organizations was so great that they could not even merge their member education and leadership development programs.

Second, as anyone who has been elected to union office or worked as a union staff representative knows, union activists spend a great deal of time and energy on internal political matters.  As in any organization, whether it is a private corporation, a charitable non-profit, or a progressive union, politics is often a consuming and unforgiving blood sport.  Popular culture feeds off the images of Donald Trump firing make-believe employees and similar spectacles of dirty personal politics broadcast by Reality TV. Usually the damage is limited to the ego of the losing faction. 

Hotel workers lose

For workers at the Holiday Inn in St. Catherines the cost of the internal conflict has been the very existence of the union they have struggled to build.  These workers, who faced illegal firings and bitter employer resistance to their organizing efforts, were intentionally harmed to advance one faction’s political agenda.

Diane and her fellow rank-and-file workers were not merely the innocent victims or collateral damage of this bitter civil war.  The employer never wanted a union in the hotel and only begrudgingly came to the bargaining table as a result of the creative and tenacious “I Stand with Diane” campaign.  When attorneys for UNITE HERE notified the employer that Workers United was not the rightful representative, they handed the employer a “get out of union recognition free card” and an easy excuse to walk away from negotiations.

The jurisdictional claim would be more convincing if UNITE HERE were providing any material or moral support for these workers.  But Diane reports that the faction that now claims to be the rightful representatives has never even contacted her or her co-workers.  The jurisdictional claims by UNITE HERE are even less convincing when one considers the fractured nature of union representation in the region’s hospitality and gaming industries. 

The CAW has launched several organizing drives at the major casino in Niagara and the UFCW represents a handful of area hotels.  The actions against Diane are about advancing a political agenda, not protecting a jurisdictional principle.  If UNITE HERE had put organizers in the field to support Diane and resources to force the employer back to the table, I could have supported those efforts but they chose, instead, to advance their own cause to the detriment of the exact workers they claim to represent.

UNITE HERE’s actions against Diane and her co-workers in Southern Ontario stand in stark contrast to the union’s efforts to brand itself as the rank-and-file alternative to SEIU’s top down model of unionism.  At the union’s recent convention, UNITE HERE delegates adopted measures to create a rank-and-file Bill of Rights and institutionalize the union’s commitment to diversity. These initiatives should be applauded.

Furthermore, there are plenty of reasons to be critical of Stern and SEIU.  The move by Workers United to affiliate with SEIU is highly divisive. But crossing jurisdictional boundaries, competing for members in organizing drives and even accepting the affiliation of a breakaway union are all too common in the labour movement.  Let the union which has not committed these “sins” throw the first stone of self-righteous indignation.

UNITE HERE has filed lawsuits against Raynor and his Canadian counterpart, Alexandra Dagg. Such court actions and related political tactics are common fare to internal fights and rarely cause any real harm to rank-and-file union members.  However, when UNITE HERE aimed their political attacks against Diane and her co-workers, vulnerable to employer retaliation, they crossed the line. 

Eventually this civil war will come to an end, whether through a mediated settlement or the unconditional surrender or destruction of one faction.  The outcome that is not so clear is whether Diane and her co-workers will have a union when the fight is over.  At the end of the day, that is what really matters for working people. 

The breakaway faction of Workers United in Ontario continues to stand with Diane and her co-workers.  The path to peace in this conflict requires that UNITE HERE and the rest of the labour movement stand with Diane too, even if they chose to continue to fight SEIU and Workers United.

 

Robert Hickey spent ten years as an activist and organizer in the Teamsters union in the U.S. before moving to Canada. Robert is currently an assistant professor of industrial relations at Queen’s University. In 2008, he published the study, “Challenges and opportunities to improving employment conditions in Niagara’s hotel sector.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Toronto Star and it is published here with permission.

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