- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Labor has its best chance in years to see its pro-worker plans become reality, but infighting is threatening to undermine its clout when workers most need it _ as jobs disappear and economic fears grow.

A vicious civil war over the future of UNITE HERE, a textile, restaurant and hotel employees union, has gotten so nasty that Democrats privately warn the battle could unintentionally derail labor’s biggest agenda item, legislation making it easier for workers to organize.

The dispute is affecting others in organized labor, with a UNITE HERE faction accusing the Service Employees International Union of using heavy-handed tactics to boost its already 2 million-strong roster by trying to raid eight smaller unions. SEIU, which has faced its own internal strife, calls the charges “blatantly false.”

There’s also unrest as rival federations AFL-CIO and Change to Win consider reuniting four years after an ugly split that left deep scars among labor’s leaders.

“If there’s ever been a moment where having one unified voice is important, it’s this moment,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic operative with long ties to unions.

Labor sees promise for the first time in eight years to advance its proposals with President Barack Obama in the White House and Democrats controlling Congress. And, recession-hit workers across the country arguably need more union support as they face layoffs and furloughs.

“You’d think this would be the time where the labor movement would get its act together,” said Peter Dreier of Occidental College in Los Angeles, an expert in labor politics. Instead, he said, the fighting could hinder efforts to reform labor laws by giving corporations ammunition to deflect attention from workers’ rights.

Tom Juravich, a labor studies professor at the Labor Relations and Research Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, predicted such “dysfunctional family” spats will have a negligible effect on the movement’s success. Still, he added: “I don’t think it reflects well on labor.”

Obama already has addressed some of labor’s most pressing issues. He reversed Bush administration policies that critics said favored employers; signed a bill allowing more leeway for workers seeking justice over pay discrimination; and proposed more money to boost enforcement of workplace health, safety and wage laws.

But the jury is still out on how much Obama will weigh in on high-stakes legislation that would dramatically reform labor laws by allowing workers to form unions by simply signing a card or petition, removing an employer’s right to demand a secret ballot vote.

Unions, which represent only 12.4 percent of the nation’s workforce, say the measure is extraordinarily important to boosting membership. Democrats say a united labor movement will be critical to its passage.

Leaders of the nation’s 12 largest unions and rival federations AFL-CIO and Change to Win were mindful of the political and economic landscape as well as the power of unity when they said earlier this year that they would try to reunite.

Labor operated under the AFL-CIO banner for decades, but its influence waned as membership shrunk and Republicans controlled the White House and Congress. After Democrat John Kerry lost the presidency in 2004, the movement’s leaders feuded over how to stem the erosion in membership while reviving labor’s political might. Seven unions, led by SEIU and including UNITE HERE, formed their own federation called Change to Win in 2005.

But now, Democrats say the talks about regrouping are continuing but there have been disagreements about focus, finances and structure of a future federation. Some Democrats blame “ascension politics;” longtime AFL-CIO president John Sweeney is stepping down this year after a long tenure and several are jockeying to succeed him. Others say the UNITE HERE upheaval and its tentacles are to blame.

Underscoring the growing worries about the rift’s corrosiveness, United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger and United Steel Workers President Leo Gerard urged resolution in a letter to the UNITE HERE camps last week. “The continuing public escalation of your internal battle … threatens members’ interests and reforms that would benefit the entire labor community,” they said.

Essentially, UNITE HERE is feuding over whether it should split in two.

The Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) merged five years ago. UNITE had the assets, including ownership of New York-based Amalgamated Bank, but fewer members given the waning U.S. manufacturing sector. HERE had little money to organize but a hefty membership that was growing along with the hospitality industry.

Under the merger, the head of UNITE, Bruce Raynor, became the new body’s president, while the head of HERE, John W. Wilhelm, became the president of the union’s hospitality division. That lineup was to remain until an election this summer.

But it quickly became clear there was a major cultural clash. It wasn’t until recently, though, that the union erupted in turmoil. Now, its roughly 400,000-member rank-and-file are divided.

Raynor and his allies call the merger a failure and want to bolt; local affiliates even went so far as to vote to secede. But Wilhelm and his supporters argue that the union’s constitution bars members from leaving. Both sides have gone to court; more legal wrangling is likely.

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