by Randy Shaw on September 17, 2009

On the last day of the AFL-CIO convention, UNITE HERE President John Wilhelm announced that his union is leaving Change to Win and rejoining the AFL-CIO. The announcement, while not unexpected, will soon to followed by a similar decision by the Laborers Union, and represents a likely fatal blow to SEIU’s efforts to create a competing labor Federation. Meanwhile, some delegates staying at Pittsburgh’s Sheraton Hotel at Station Square saw firsthand why UNITE HERE felt compelled to end any connection with SEIU. UNITE HERE Local 57 represents the Sheraton, but hotel management is backing SEIU’s efforts to raid the union. To this end, it sought to prevent workers from wearing Local 57 buttons designed to show their loyalty to UNITE HERE. But what management and SEIU did not count upon was that representatives of the International Labor Communications Association (ILCA) would be also staying at the Sheraton, and when they heard of this denial of workers rights to wear the Local 57 button they took action. Not only did ILCA meet with management to demand and secure a written memo telling workers that they would not face retaliation for wearing the button, but 80 ILCA members showed their support for workers rights by wearing the buttons themselves. Now that’s solidarity!

The AFL-CIO annual convention closes today with UNITE HERE’s announcement that it is leaving Change to Win and rejoining the AFL-CIO. It’s quite a coup for incoming AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, and brings UNITE HERE a powerful ally in its struggle against SEIU.

SEIU’s Pittsburgh Mischief

Here in Pittsburgh, SEIU is working with hotel management at the Omni and Sheraton to shift workers from UNITE HERE to SEIU. It is a tawdry tale of a union refusing to accept workers desire to stay in their current union, and collaborating with management to maintain workers dues in escrow rather than forwarding the funds to their rightful union, UNITE HERE.

UNITE HERE Local 57 (likely derived from the Pittsburgh-based Heinz Corp.’s promotion of “57 Varieties” of canned and bottled foods) joined the Pennsylvania Joint Board after HERE merged with UNITE in 2004. After portions of UNITE seceded from UNITE HERE, the members and Executive Board of Local 57 voted to stay with their longtime union.

But SEIU won’t accept this vote, even though Stern has acknowledged that UNITE HERE is entitled to exclusive jurisdiction in the hotel industry. As a result, SEIU is colluding with Sheraton and Omni management to hold Local 57 dues in escrow, hoping to create sufficient financial pressure on UNITE HERE to force union president John Wilhelm to cave in to SEIU in negotiations to settle their fight.

SEIU knows there is no real dispute over which union represents Pittsburgh hotel workers. But the union is playing a dangerous and destructive game of pressuring Wilhelm for “leverage,” a strategy that has hurt the SEIU brand and leaves employers the big winners.

That’s why SEIU’s Sheraton Hotel rep was not happy to learn that ILCA had intervened on behalf of Local 57 workers right to wear buttons. He accused ILCA of “choosing sides,” while they just saw it as “ siding” with worker rights.

Stern’s Chicago Play

SEIU also used AFL-CIO convention week to send mailers to UNITE HERE Local 1 members in Chicago, who are in the midst of a major contract fight with the city’s hotels. Accompanied by photos of a maid and chef, the mailers are headlined, “In Tough Times Like These, You Need Your Union to Work for You, Not Wasting Your Resources Fighting Another Union.” It then urges, “Tell Your Union To End This Dispute.”

In tiny print at the bottom, the mailer says that it is not asking workers to leave UNITE HERE, rather it simply wants workers to tell John Wilhelm to “negotiate or accept binding arbitration” with SEIU.

So at a time when Local 1 needs strong worker solidarity to win a good contract, SEIU is attempting to undermine worker confidence in their union. As in Pittsburgh, SEIU is performing the employers’ customary role.

A Strategy Doomed to Fail

To say that SEIU’s Chicago strategy will backfire is an understatement, and is likely immediately obvious upon reading the above.

First, Local 1 has carried out a more than six year strike at the Congress Plaza Hotel, a struggle that a weak union, or one lacking the strong confidence of its members, could never have undertaken. For reasons only known to the SEIU brain trust, the union has targeted workers in what may well be UNITE HERE’s three strongest locals — Local 1, Local 2 in San Francisco, and Local 11 in Los Angeles — where chances of eroding worker confidence could not be worse.

Second, how is it possible that Andy Stern still believes that he and SEIU can intimidate John Wilhelm and UNITE HERE through such tactics? Can anyone at SEIU really believe that the Chicago mailer will be the tactic that finally brings Wilhelm and UNITE HERE leaders to their knees?

A Sign of Desperation

Here’s what SEIU’s Chicago mailer and its Pittsburgh alliance with management is really about: it’s a sign of desperation. SEIU’s “shock and awe” strategy that began last spring has failed, and the entire labor movement is now siding with Wilhelm and UNITE HERE against SEIU.

Contrary to SEIU’s hopes, rank and file UNITE HERE members are not only sticking with their union, but they are furious at SEIU’s conduct. I stayed at the Omni William Penn in Pittsburgh this week and spoke to a number of maids, most of whom are wearing Local 57 buttons in a show of solidarity. These maids and bellhops are standing by their union.

SEIU knows that its fight with UNITE HERE is hurting its image and squandering resources. It desperately wants a deal. But its problem now is that its desperation has become so transparent that it is now UNITE HERE who holds the cards, and that will decide when to make peace and upon what terms.

The labor movement leaves Pittsburgh more unified and in great spirits — meanwhile, SEIU remains bogged down in costly fights on multiple fronts, having virtually abandoned the health care organizing that led to its dramatic growth.

And Change to Win, Andy Stern’s vision for an SEIU-led labor movement, will soon be politically and organizationally irrelevant, it it is not already.

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

Filed under: Archive