[Marxism] Counterpunch: New Model for the Labor Movement? Behind the UNITE HERE Union Merger

Mike Friedman mikedf at mail.amnh.org
Sat Jul 31 11:30:34 MDT 2004

July 31, 2004

New Model for the Labor Movement? Behind the UNITE HERE Union Merger

At one level, the UNITE HERE convention was much different than similar 
union gatherings. Union staffers talked bluntly about terrible contracts 
negotiated by the corrupt old guard in HERE locals. At the HERE special 
convention to approve the merger, President John Wilhelm motivated the 
change by declaring that "we need another rebirth of the North American 
labor movement"--and later raised the prospect of leaving the AFL-CIO if it 
doesn't change.

Bruce Raynor, the president of UNITE and now the merged union, acknowledged 
that too many members are just as broke after they get their paycheck as 
they were before. In his first speech as UH president, Raynor sounded 
left-wing themes seldom heard from major U.S. labor leaders in an election 
year--addressing the concentration of wealth among the richest, the health 
care crisis, poverty, infant mortality and the Iraq war.

The highlight of the convention was a moving presentation by participants 
in last year's Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, a campaign that HERE played 
a crucial role in organizing. Both Raynor and Wilhelm--two of the five 
leaders of the New Unity Partnership--spoke bluntly about the decline in 
union power and influence, underscored by the fact that just 8.2 percent of 
workers in the private sector are members of unions.

By comparison, the last convention of the United Auto Workers (UAW) in 2002 
avoided discussion of the union's repeated failure to organized Japanese 
and German-owned auto assembly plants and the steep decline in union 
membership. The proceedings of the UAW convention were deadening, 
consisting mainly of union officials reading aloud resolutions that had 
already been printed and distributed to delegates.

However, the UH convention was just as scripted as that of the UAW--and 
much less democratic. UAW leaders, after all, allowed some members to take 
to the floor to try to challenge the leadership, which a small opposition 
was able to do.

The UH proceedings excluded virtually all participation from the convention 
floor. Instead, union officials and organizers introduced strategic 
campaigns--the organizing drives at Cintas industrial laundries, for 
example, or at Native American-owned hotels and casinos--from the front.

These presentations were followed by reports from rank-and-file 
participants who accompanied the officials onstage in accordance to what 
convention organizers called "show flow." The speeches were usually 
effective and met with cheers and sincere enthusiasm.

Yet the effect was to create a sense of membership participation without 
giving convention delegates any real ability to shape the direction of the 
union. This approach was taken to absurd lengths when the other leaders of 
the New Unity Partnership addressed the convention.

Raynor, chairing the proceedings, suddenly announced that union leaders 
would take questions--and a prearranged comment from a delegate led to a 
prepared speech by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President 
Andrew Stern on problems in the AFL-CIO and organizing the unorganized.

More seriously, the merger agreement, the new constitution and new officers 
were voted on with virtually no discussion from the floor. And since the 
next UH convention won't be held for five years, the complex business of 
completing the merger and launching new organizing campaigns will be 
carried out exclusively by the union's general executive board--thanks to a 
constitution that centralizes power at the top.

What strategy will revive our unions?


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