SEIU Talks Peace — But Continues War — on UNITE HERE

by Randy Shaw on July 21, 2009

SEIU President Andy Stern issued a staff memo last week saying: “we are close to putting the dispute with UNITE HERE behind us.” Stern said he was optimistic that a settlement was near, and that “we and the members of Workers United don’t want more fights.” But Stern’s rosy assessment has no basis in reality. While he spoke of promoting labor peace, SEIU moved to de-certify a UNITE HERE bargaining unit in Puerto Rico, and up-ended a critical UNITE HERE election at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in San Antonio, Texas. In addition, the Workers United website accuses UNITE HERE President John Wilhelm of betraying workers, and charges UNITE HERE with giving “employers an excuse to mess with workers rights.” Unfortunately, Stern’s peace offensive has been merely rhetorical. Stern knows a settlement with UNITE HERE is not close, and appears to be simply buying time to reverse growing media, labor movement, and internal criticism of his union’s actions.

SEIU President Andy Stern has been on the defensive in recent weeks, as the New York Times, labor leaders, and key politicians blame his union’s raids on UNITE HERE for undermining labor unity. But Stern insists that labor peace is just around the corner, describing his talks with John Wilhelm at the Change to Win meeting last week as a “great step forward.”

But Stern’s optimism runs counter to the facts. No date for negotiations with UNITE HERE has been set, Stern has not publicly renounced his demand for binding arbitration, and SEIU’s raids against UNITE HERE continue. In addition, John Wilhelm issued a scathing, point by point response to Stern, confirming that SEIU’s actions are preventing a settlement.

Wilhelm: “Andy Stern vs. The Truth”

On July 16, Wilhelm issued a memo directly challenging Stern’s account of SEIU’s actions. Titled, “Andy Stern vs. The Truth,” Wilhelm starts by quoting Stern as follows:

“’SEIU is not raiding UNITE HERE.’

SEIU called for a ‘cease fire’ last April and we have honored our commitment.”

Andy Stern, July 7, 2009 memo

Neither of these statements is even remotely true. SEIU is actively probing UNITE HERE members in dozens of workplaces. A number of petitions for raid elections have been filed by SEIU in UNITE HERE-represented shops. SEIU is working hard to derail UNITE HERE card checks. Mail to UNITE HERE members continues.’”

Wilhelm provides examples of recent SEIU raids:

*On June 29 and July 2, 2009, SEIU filed raid petitions in two UNITE HERE bargaining units at the El San Juan Hotel and Casino, totaling 400 workers, in Puerto Rico

* On March 3, 2009, UNITE HERE won a card check among 390 workers at the new San Antonio Hyatt Hotel. From the day of the card check victory, SEIU worked with the employer to undermine UNITE HERE’s victory. Hyatt management expelled from the premises the organizers from UNITE HERE who had won the card check, and granted a staff member from SEIU Local 5 the right to determine what staff had access to the hotel.

On July 13, 29 Hyatt rank and file Organizing Committee members voted to withdraw from the July 17 election. They made the judgment that SEIU and Hyatt together had succeeded in reversing the card check victory and making a fair NLRB election impossible.

* Although UNITE HERE won a card check neutrality agreement for a casino at Presque Isle Downs in Erie, Pennsylvania SEIU organizers continue to compete with UNITE HERE / Teamsters / Operating Engineers organizers at this gaming facility.

* On July 9, 2009, SEIU filed a de-certification petition against UNITE HERE Local 634, which for decades has represented 2,500 Philadelphia school cafeteria workers.

* UNITE HERE has for many years represented a national bargaining unit of 2,100 workers employed by Delaware North in 15 airport food and beverage operations across the country. SEIU has had between 40 and 80 organizers soliciting signatures nationwide for a de-certification petition. At many airports, SEIU is working hand in glove with the employer.

* SEIU has filed three raid petitions against UNITE HERE Local 24 in Detroit. SEIU withdrew its petition in one of these raids, but elections are scheduled this month at the other two. SEIU continues raid activity in at least 10 other Local 24 bargaining units, including the newly organized Westin Book Cadillac Hotel, where Local 24 won a card check and is trying to negotiate a first contract.

SEIU’s Conflict With the Facts

Wilhelm’s letter undercuts SEIU’s claim that it has been “standing down” and refraining from hostile actions against UNITE HERE. And SEIU’s recent actions seem almost designed to further anger the union with whom they claim to want peace.

For example, UNITE HERE hoped to use San Antonio as a springboard for similar card check victories against the Hyatt Hotel chain elsewhere, and particularly in Indianapolis, where workers are organizing to create that city’s first union hotel. SEIU has now delayed this breakthrough.

SEIU is raiding UNITE HERE gaming facilities in Puerto Rico despite Stern’s insistence that his union accepts UFCW President Joe Hansen’s recommendation that UNITE HERE have exclusive jurisdiction in gaming.

Stern has also repeatedly claimed that Hansen recommended that SEIU get exclusive jurisdiction over food service workers. But Tom Snyder, UNITE HERE political director, notes that Hansen’s memo — which cannot be cited here because it remains confidential — expressly conflicts with Stern’s assertion.

SEIU’s Strategy Has Failed

Andy Stern’s big strategic move was an attempt to get the labor movement to support SEIU’s call for binding arbitration of this dispute. It not only utterly failed — only the UAW backed Stern — but was treated with derision by Laborers Union leader Terrence O’Sullivan and other union leaders.

Stern’s gambit also struck out with the public. Although SEIU took out ads in The Nation and promoted an online petition to demand Wilhelm “Put workers first” by accepting binding arbitration, as of July 17 Wilhelm’s office had not received a single petition.

Meanwhile, Stern’s repeated assurances (including to this reporter) that SEIU’s fights with other unions would not impact the campaign to enact the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) have fallen flat. The New York Times reported last week that the EFCA’s card check provision was dead, and while Stern issued a statement refuting this, it is consistent with what political insiders have been saying about the cost of labor disunity.

Perhaps the most striking example of Stern’s attempt to frame SEIU’s agenda in the best possible light despite contrary facts is his assessment in his July 17 staff memo about that morning’s Washington Times editorial. Stern cites the editorial because “buried in the mess was one kernel of truth. That what happened is exactly what Bruce Raynor and Workers United members all around the US have been saying all along the merger of UNITE and HERE failed. That’s why more than 100,000 members voted to leave and form their own union.”

But the editorial never says the UNITE HERE merger has failed. Instead, the editorial, “Labor Cannibalism: Who is Bruce Raynor?” describes Bruce Raynor’s thirty-year record of failure, incompetence, and betrayal of workers, and cites Raynor’s conduct toward UNITE HERE as “one of many good reasons” to oppose EFCA.

It is troubling that Stern found a nonexistent “kernel of truth” in the Times’ editorial, but ignored its prevailing message: that the person who led SEIU into its fight with UNITE HERE, and who was recently appointed as an SEIU Executive Vice-President has become the right wing’s poster child for its anti-EFCA campaign.

With a few revisions, the right-wing Times’ account of Raynor’s attacks on UNITE HERE could have run in a progressive publication like The Nation. For Stern to ignore the chief point of the Times editorial, and to tell his staff that it reaffirmed his and Raynor’s position on the dispute, is mind-boggling.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.

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