Bruce Raynor and the Problem of Labor Movement Royalty

by Randy Shaw on April 28, 2011

Longtime labor leader Bruce Raynor was removed from the SEIU Executive Board this week, following allegations that he submitted $2,300 in false meal receipts. The charge seemed minimal in light of Raynor’s serving as an SEIU Executive Vice-President despite a federally judicially-sanctioned panel finding in May 2010 that he misappropriated $15 million from UNITE HERE while serving as its President, and accepted a salary from UNITE HERE while working actively to deprive his union of bargaining rights. And while earlier serving as President of UNITE, Raynor depleted tens of millions of dollars of garment worker assets. Yet the lack of accountability in the labor movement allowed Raynor to remain a high labor official until this week, and to still sit on the board and executive committee of the labor-owned $4.5 billion-asset Amalgamated Bank. And Raynor also remains chairman of several union-affiliated national pension and insurance funds, including the Amalgamated Life Insurance Company. The labor movement resembles the House of Windsor in ensuring lifetime leadership positions for Raynor and other failed leaders.

Bruce Raynor is understandably angry over losing a cushy $200,000 a year SEIU job over a measly $2,300 in false meal reimbursements (he claimed he was eating these ten expensive meals with SEIU attorneys when instead it was a female SEIU official). After all, why should SEIU care about $2,300 when it paid Raynor’s high salary despite his lack of productivity, and after a federal panel charged him with misappropriating $15 million from his prior union?

I’m sure Raynor feels that SEIU knew exactly what it was getting when it united with him to try to take over UNITE HERE. After he spent years failing to organize new workers, creating and breaking up union alliances, and never being held accountable for his job performance, it was a bit late in the game for SEIU to start treating Raynor like a regular employee.

Longtime leaders like Bruce Raynor are labor royalty. And a member of labor royalty cannot lose their subsidized positions any more than Prince Charles or other members of the House of Windsor can lose theirs.

Raynor’s Legacy of Failure

Bruce Raynor career as a labor leader began with his only great success: the J.P. Stevens textile campaign profiled in the film, Norma Rae. This campaign resulted in a union contract being signed in 1980. Raynor’s role has curiously expanded over time, while that of Ray Rogers, the architect of the “corporate campaign” that was seen at the time as key to victory, has been diminished. Nevertheless, those who knew Raynor then admired his work, and it is understandable that he parlayed the J.P. Stevens victory into a top leadership position in the garment industry.

But Raynor never replicated this success. He failed to stem the shift of garment jobs overseas, and while much of this was out of his control, he never came up with a strategy to create a national campaign around globalization. This was left to grassroots anti-sweatshop groups, who Raynor’s union failed to adequately support.

Rather than build a grassroots movement to restrict the exporting of garment jobs, Raynor used “insider” political moves to win compensation for his union when jobs left. This became his pattern: continue to merge garment worker unions in a way that expanded his own power without making a serious investment in new worker organizing.

I saw the failure of Raynor’s approach firsthand in the late 1990’s when I wrote Reclaiming America, which heavily focused on the Nike and other anti-sweatshop campaigns. Among these was the organizing drive that the Raynor-led UNITE conducted at the GUESS clothing factory in Los Angeles. While the campaign had broad community support and was clearly winnable, UNITE withheld the resources necessary to prevail.

It was a costly defeat which more creative union leadership could have transformed into an historic and precedent-setting victory for domestic garment workers.

With union membership declining, Raynor began subsidizing UNITE operations by selling off real estate and other assets that were originally part of the ILGWU. In 2004, he agreed to merge UNITE with HERE, a combination seen as a perfect match. UNITE had the money to organize but not the workers (since garment jobs were going overseas) while HERE had a huge number of hotel workers that could be unionized but lacked the money to do so.

The UNITE HERE merger proved a great success. And the victorious Hotel Workers Rising campaign of 2006 enabled Raynor – who became UNITE HERE President following the merger – to claim his biggest victory in over 25 years.

Disrespecting Royalty

In June 2009, UNITE HERE was scheduled to elect its president for the next five years. After working with Raynor since 2004, the union’s Executive Board had doubts about Raynor’s skills and commitment to the type of long-term organizing struggles that had brought the union success.

When John Wilhelm explained to Raynor in the fall of 2008 that he lacked support for another five-year term, Raynor responded not like a labor official in a democratic union but rather like a king being told to give up his throne.

In true royal style, Raynor threatened Wilhelm with an all-out war for the UNITE-HERE territory. And since Raynor lacked majority support on the Executive Board as well as among union members, in the tradition of European kings he brought another member of the labor nation in to the fight: Andy Stern and SEIU.

This led to the most destructive labor infighting in decades at the worst possible time: the start of the Obama Administration, a time when SEIU and labor should have been fighting a unified national campaign for the electoral agenda it spent over $200 million to win the preceding November.

But Raynor did not care what happened to the labor movement. He only cared about protecting his throne. To this end, Stern gave him a new title as President of “Workers United,” a subset of SEIU that primarily comprised workers who were UNITE members prior to the merger.

SEIU soon learned the same lesson that led the UNITE HERE leadership to oppose Raynor serving a second term as President: the Workers United chief brought little to the table besides the Amalgamated Bank he gained through taking control of the successor to two merged garment worker unions. Nevertheless, either out of Stern’s personal friendship or an unwillingness to admit that it had made an egregious mistake in attacking its longtime ally UNITE HERE on Raynor’s behalf, SEIU kept him as Executive Vice President until this week.

Unfortunately, Bruce Raynor is not the only untrustworthy and divisive leader who is assured lifetime high-paid employment by the labor movement. And unlike Prince Charles or Prince William, whose duties are merely ceremonial, the continued tenure of Raynor and his ilk comes at a steep price – which likely explains why SEIU finally cut its losses.

Randy Shaw is also the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century, as well as The Activist’s Handbook.

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