In a dramatic blow to SEIU’s efforts to raid UNITE HERE members and jurisdictions, 15 of the nation’s leading unions pledged Monday to provide UNITE HERE with “material and moral” support. Before a wildly cheering and upbeat crowd of 700, AFSCME President Gerald McEntee denounced SEIU for the “poaching” of UNITE HERE, and for engaging in “piracy on the high seas of organized labor.” Laborers President Terrence O’Sullivan described SEIU’s conduct as “deplorable,” and said “we didn’t join Change to Win to raid and hijack another union’s members.” Change to Win leaders James Hoffa of the Teamsters and Joe Hansen of the United Food and Commercial Workers also pledged support, while Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers (one of the only two international presidents that SEIU claimed back its position) now supports UNITE HERE. UNITE HERE President John Wilhelm defiantly castigated SEIU as “the bosses union,” and said that his workers are now in a “two headed fight: a fight with the boss and a fight with the boss’s lackey union.” Wilhelm said there has been “real widespread revulsion” throughout the labor movement against SEIU’s conduct, and the UNITE HERE convention has announced a new labor movement unity, with SEIU alone on its own.
You know it was a wild scene at Chicago’s Sheraton hotel when John Wilhelm was the voice of moderation among the union leaders attacking SEIU’s raids on his union. Terrence O’Sullivan gave the impression that he was willing to enlist in defensive actions against SEIU right after leaving the podium, while Gerald McEntee led a chant describing SEIU’s behavior as “Bullshit!”
Workers Lead the Way
But the real stars of the first day of UNITE HERE’s first convention in five years were the workers, particularly those who have encountered SEIU raids on a daily basis. And as many told their stories from the stage, a dominant message emerged: these attacks have made the workers even stronger in their loyalty to UNITE HERE, and even more resistant to SEIU attempts to “hijack” their locals.
Among these workers are those with the New England Joint Board, whose leader, Warren Pepicelli gave perhaps the day’s most moving speech as he described his feelings when he was present at a meeting last December and learned of SEIU’s three-pronged strategy to seize his local from UNITE HERE. Pepicelli noted that “it was not an easy decision” to break from his “former colleagues and friends,” but that it ultimately came down to a matter of principle.
He decided that it was best for workers to “look for what brings us together, not tears us apart,” and urged the crowd to take the union’s name literally and to “unite here.”
The Congress Plaza Hotel
Other workers addressing the crowd were those on strike for over six years at Chicago’s own Congress Plaza Hotel.
Wilhelm introduced these workers, after reminding the crowd that SEIU had criticized UNITE HERE for staying with the fight for so long. According to Wilhelm, “for the clear example of the difference between UNITE HERE and how SEIU has made itself into the bosses union, look at those despicable remarks.”
As the Congress Plaza workers entered the stage, the crowd rose to its feet chanting the old UFW rallying cry, Si Se Puede
. Wilhelm described the Congress Plaza fight as “an object lesson for the labor movement,” which shows that “UNITE HERE will never accept the strategy of cut and run.”
Workers from Biloxi, Mississippi to Atlantic City, New Jersey, from Las Vegas to Baltimore spoke of their determination to resist SEIU, and to not allow the raids to diminish organizing. UNITE HERE organizers and staff constantly talk about the focus on organizing, and this mantra has clearly spread throughout the workforce.
If SEIU thought that its attacks on UNITE HERE’s organizing model and track record would only be felt by its leaders and staff, it made a grave miscalculation. Workers I spoke with took these attacks personally, and are even more insistent that the UNITE HERE bottom-up organizing model is the best approach.
Labor vs. SEIU
The real story of this convention is that this is no longer a fight between SEIU and UNITE HERE. Rather, it is SEIU vs. the American Labor Movement.
No other conclusion can be drawn from the diverse unions pledging material support for UNITE HERE’s defense against SEIU raids. These include such diverse unions as the Communication Workers, the International Association of Fire Fighters, the Steelworkers, and the Letter Carriers, in addition to many more.
SEIU should be sure to get a copy of O’Sullivan’s speech – which someone should put on YouTube for its powerful insistence that an injury to one is an injury to all, as well as for his harsh indictment of George W. Bush. O’Sullivan described it as the fight “we” have with SEIU, and said that if SEIU can come after UNITE HERE, the Laborers, or another union “could be next.”
And regarding SEIU’s demand that UNITE HERE subject its future to binding arbitration – SEIU hired a wagon adorned in UNITE HERE’s red and black colors and with a sign “Binding Arbitration Now” to circle the hotel – O’Sullivan did not mince words: “There is no goddamm way I’d ever agree to binding arbitration when it comes to the future of my core jurisdiction.”
Both O’Sullivan and McEntee announced that labor should end Change to Win, and reunite in the AFL-CIO. SEIU’s conduct has imploded the new labor federation it helped create, making this new unity a virtual certainty.
This will leave Andy Stern and SEIU without other unions to lead, and likely unable to cooperate with on campaigns. Stern and SEIU have preferred going their own way, and the rest of labor does not wish to have their interests subordinated to a union that has achieved nowhere near the organizing success or union density as UNITE HERE in its core jurisdictions.
If SEIU tries to escalate its raids after July 1 as Stern has threatened, it will now find nearly all of the labor movement joining UNITE HERE against such attacks.
Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.