Breakaway union group holds Philly convention

March 21, 2009 7:16:48 PM PDT
Breakaway members of a trade union on Saturday opened what they called an organizing convention aimed at formalizing a bitter split that has prompted warnings by labor allies that such infighting may harm broader union efforts in the most favorable political climate in decades. Officials say the members have left UNITE HERE, a textile, restaurant and hotel employees union, and were forming a new union called Workers United.

Edgar Romney, 66, who has been manager of UNITE HERE's 4,000-member New York Metropolitan Area Joint Board but is seeking the presidency of the new group, said the workers planned to draft a constitution, elect union officers and set a direction for the new union.

The Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) merged in 2004. UNITE membership was concentrated in the manufacturing sector while HERE had a growing membership in the hospitality industry.

The head of UNITE, Bruce Raynor, and his allies call the merger a failure and want a divorce, but those aligned with HERE head John W. Wilhelm argue that the union's constitution bars members from leaving. Both sides have gone to court over the issue.

Romney said his group felt that resources should go to organizing industries such as clothing manufacturers and laundries, while the other faction felt that was a waste of money and resources should go to what they considered growing industries such as hotels and gambling.

"We felt very strongly that given our rich history and tradition, we had an obligation to try to organize workers in the manufacturing industry and those core industries that we historically have been concerned about," Romney said in the lobby of the Philadelphia hotel hosting the convention.

Wilhelm, in a statement, characterized the meeting as "little more than an attempted hostile takeover" by the Service Employees International Union. Romney said the group might consider pursuing an affiliation with SEIU, which has called "blatantly false" charges that it is trying to raid smaller unions to boost its already 2 million-strong roster.

Romney said the breakaway group has 150,000 members, or 40 percent of the total, while Wilhelm said the group represents "fewer than one third" of UNITE HERE's total membership.

The split has prompted private warnings from Democrats and other union leaders that the struggle could hamper broader labor initiatives, especially legislation making it easier for workers to organize.

United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger and United Steel Workers President Leo Gerard urged both camps recently to resolve the dispute, saying "continuing public escalation of your internal battle ... threatens members' interests and reforms that would benefit the entire labor community."

Democrats say a united labor movement is critical to passage of a bill that would allow 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 work force, see the measure as vital to boosting membership.

Romney acknowledged that the public battle was unhelpful to such objectives.

"That's why we think that the sooner this thing is over and completed and done with, then we can all get back to doing what we do - and that is working to try to get that kind of legislation passed."

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