[Marxism] Unions Plan to Merge to Counter Corporate Giants

Charles Brown cbrown at michiganlegal.org
Mon Mar 1 09:55:50 MST 2004


Unions Plan to Merge to Counter Corporate Giants

Los Angeles Times
February 27, 2004

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Unions Plan to Merge to Counter Corporate Giants

Uniting hotel and garment workers would vastly expand
their resources, leaders say. A major test could come
soon.

By Don Lee Times Staff Writer

Two of the nation's most aggressive labor unions said
Thursday that they planned to combine to better contend
with national companies that are growing bigger
themselves through mergers.

The leaders of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and
Textile Employees, known as UNITE, and the Hotel
Employees and Restaurant Employees union, or HERE, said
it wasn't the California grocery strike and lockout that
brought the two together. But they said that long-
running dispute underscored why they needed to take a
page from corporate giants that have grown more powerful
and in some cases more defiant as their industries
consolidated.

"What the grocery strike speaks to is that you had giant
national companies doing battle, the stage was national
and global," said UNITE's president, Bruce Raynor. "You
need to have strong unions that are capable of fighting
- the coming battles between workers and employers
wanting to lower their living standards."

Executives with UNITE and HERE said a marriage would
vastly expand their resources and reach, enhancing their
capability to organize their core targets of women and
immigrant workers, people usually employed in low-wage
industries. The newly formed union would have a total
active membership of about 440,000, from textile workers
in the Southeast to bellhops in Santa Monica.

The merger plans reflect an ongoing consolidation in
organized labor, which is trying to restructure amid the
relentless shifting of manufacturing jobs to overseas
and pressures from employers at the bargaining table.
The merged union also hopes the combination will make it
more effective at organizing workers in service
industries, which have been growing but have been
difficult to unionize, partly because of high employee
turnover.

The combined unions could face an immediate test in
Southern California. In mid-April, HERE's contracts with
at least nine of the largest hotels in Los Angeles are
set to expire. Talks haven't begun, and some observers
said the hotels, which have been hurt by the slowdown in
tourism in recent years, could be seeking cuts in
healthcare benefits.

Both the UNITE president and John Wilhelm, president of
HERE, are Ivy League graduates who built their
reputation in the labor movement through aggressive
tactics in organizing and bargaining with employers.

Raynor, who would serve as general president of the
newly formed union, UNITE HERE, forged alliances with
civil rights and community leaders to organize workers
in the South. Wilhelm employed similar tactics in
helping turn the major casino hotels in Las Vegas into a
predominantly unionized industry where even dishwashers
can make $12 an hour and receive health insurance fully
paid for by the employer.

"They represent the new generation of labor leaders;
they're very strategic in their approach," said Kent
Wong, director of the Center for Labor Research and
Education at UCLA.

While the combining unions contend their strategic
approaches will help them increase membership, other
union mergers have failed to reverse a long decline in
union rolls. As of last year, 12.9% of American wage and
salary workers were union members, down from 13.3% in
2002 and 20.1% in 1983, according to the Labor
Department. Excluding government, where the unionization
rate has held steady at about 37%, the percentage of
private-sector employees who are union members has
fallen by more than half since 1983, to 8.2% last year.

HERE had about 255,000 members nationally as of last
year, an increase of about 15,000 from five years
earlier, said Ron Seeber, a professor at Cornell
University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
HERE, which has about 30,000 members in California, is
one of the few unions that have been growing.

In contrast, Seeber said, UNITE has seen its membership
fall sharply from 285,000 in 1998 to 218,000 last year,
as more jobs in apparel and textile manufacturing have
fled to other countries. UNITE said Thursday that it
currently represented about 200,000 workers, although it
has added thousands employed in laundry services. It did
not provide a breakdown of membership in California, but
the union has very few members in the Southland's large
apparel industry.

Yet UNITE is financially stronger, in large part because
of its long history and holdings, which include the
Amalgamated Bank in New York. The union had net assets
of almost $89 million at end of 2002, according to the
latest Labor Department filings. By comparison, HERE's
net assets stood at about $20 million as of early 2003.

Wilhelm, who will be president of the new union's
hospitality industries, said Thursday that the two
unions were a terrific fit. "We represent and organize
the same kind of workers - service workers, immigrants,
African Americans, women ... Our members wear the
uniforms that UNITE members wash and clean."

Wilhelm said the two unions began discussions of a
merger last fall, and boards of both unions unanimously
approved it in recent days. Members are expected to
ratify the merger in the summer.

Ada Torres, head of HERE Local 681 in Orange County,
which represents workers at Disneyland hotels, said she
was thrilled at the merger. "This is a great move for
our union. It's going to give us a lot of strength," she
said.

Analysts said there are clearly plenty of opportunities
to organize in service industries such as tourism and
retail, where jobs are growing and face little threat of
being shipped overseas. According to BNA Inc., only 5%
of workers at hotels and motels were unionized in 2002,
compared with about 13% for all industries, including
government.

Miguel Contreras, head of the Los Angeles County
Federation of Labor, said he welcomed the merger. "I
think you'll see some very aggressive, innovative
tactics. They're going to go after chains at the
national level."

Contreras added that the new union could bear its style
in the upcoming negotiations with the hotels in Los
Angeles.

"This merger will be quickly tested," he said.

John Stoddard, general manager of the Wilshire Grand and
a member of the L.A. Hotel Council's negotiating team,
said he wasn't sure how the merger would affect the
talks.

"I know the laundry washing union is a big union and has
a lot of resources at its disposal," he said, adding:
"We're hoping their demands are realistic. We can't
afford to make any rich offers."







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