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New Model for the Labor Movement?

Behind the UNITE HERE Union Merger

by LEE SUSTAR

At one level, the UNITE HERE convention was much different than similar union gatherings. Union staffers talked bluntly about terrible contracts negotiated by the corrupt old guard in HERE locals. At the HERE special convention to approve the merger, President John Wilhelm motivated the change by declaring that "we need another rebirth of the North American labor movement"–and later raised the prospect of leaving the AFL-CIO if it doesn’t change.

Bruce Raynor, the president of UNITE and now the merged union, acknowledged that too many members are just as broke after they get their paycheck as they were before. In his first speech as UH president, Raynor sounded left-wing themes seldom heard from major U.S. labor leaders in an election year–addressing the concentration of wealth among the richest, the health care crisis, poverty, infant mortality and the Iraq war.

The highlight of the convention was a moving presentation by participants in last year’s Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, a campaign that HERE played a crucial role in organizing. Both Raynor and Wilhelm–two of the five leaders of the New Unity Partnership–spoke bluntly about the decline in union power and influence, underscored by the fact that just 8.2 percent of workers in the private sector are members of unions.

By comparison, the last convention of the United Auto Workers (UAW) in 2002 avoided discussion of the union’s repeated failure to organized Japanese and German-owned auto assembly plants and the steep decline in union membership. The proceedings of the UAW convention were deadening, consisting mainly of union officials reading aloud resolutions that had already been printed and distributed to delegates.

However, the UH convention was just as scripted as that of the UAW–and much less democratic. UAW leaders, after all, allowed some members to take to the floor to try to challenge the leadership, which a small opposition was able to do.

The UH proceedings excluded virtually all participation from the convention floor. Instead, union officials and organizers introduced strategic campaigns–the organizing drives at Cintas industrial laundries, for example, or at Native American-owned hotels and casinos–from the front.

These presentations were followed by reports from rank-and-file participants who accompanied the officials onstage in accordance to what convention organizers called "show flow." The speeches were usually effective and met with cheers and sincere enthusiasm.

Yet the effect was to create a sense of membership participation without giving convention delegates any real ability to shape the direction of the union. This approach was taken to absurd lengths when the other leaders of the New Unity Partnership addressed the convention.

Raynor, chairing the proceedings, suddenly announced that union leaders would take questions–and a prearranged comment from a delegate led to a prepared speech by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andrew Stern on problems in the AFL-CIO and organizing the unorganized.

More seriously, the merger agreement, the new constitution and new officers were voted on with virtually no discussion from the floor. And since the next UH convention won’t be held for five years, the complex business of completing the merger and launching new organizing campaigns will be carried out exclusively by the union’s general executive board–thanks to a constitution that centralizes power at the top.

What strategy will revive our unions?

THE LEADERS of the New Unity Partnership have a ready answer to charges that their program for labor will weaken union democracy. "The truth is, being losers is not what members want," SEIU president Stern told Socialist Worker at the UH convention. "They want to be united, and we artificially divide them by locals, by colors and by initials.

"I think if you want to have democracy, let the workers vote about whether they want to be in the same unions with the workers who do the same kind of work. That would be the ultimate democracy, and the ultimate question that I’m willing to put to any member anywhere about this."

Even AFL-CIO President John Sweeney seemed to take on much of the New Unity Partnership’s rhetoric in his speech at the UH convention, congratulating the unions for having the "courage" to merge and declaring that the U.S. labor movement has to "change faster and work ever harder."

Wilhelm, who will serve as a top UH official under Raynor, told delegates, "The labor movement, as it is currently structured, is not working." He compared the New Unity Partnership to the Committee for Industrial Organizations within the AFL in the 1930s, which then split to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO. Asked if this implied that the New Unity Partnership would leave the AFL-CIO, he replied, "I honestly don’t know."

Yet in Wilhelm’s description, the CIO emerged from the mind of Sidney Hillman, a longtime leader of one of UNITE’s predecessor unions and a major player in an era when CIO leaders were deemed the "new men of power." Wilhelm made no mention of the general strikes of 1934 in Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco–or the great sit-down strike in the auto plants of Flint, Mich., two years later.

Those struggles involved the illegal seizure of corporate property and physical confrontation with scabs, police and the National Guard by radicalized rank-and-file union members. Left-wing parties–including the Communist and Socialist parties and Trotskyist organizations –were central to these struggles, while union leaders like Hillman used labor’s new clout to win a place in the Washington establishment.

If this history is given short shrift by NUP leaders, it’s because they still operate within the framework of mainstream union leaders–partnership with employers, accepting concessions to ensure profits, and full support for the Democratic Party. Raynor, for example, told Socialist Worker that concessions were "sometimes necessary for survival," while Wilhelm told the convention that one of the key measures of success for the merged union would be its willingness to seek out "mutually beneficial" relationships with employers.

And for all Raynor’s radical language on social issues, politics at the convention were outsourced to a series of Democratic politicians that included Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy; Barack Obama, a candidate for U.S. Senate from Illinois; Thomas Menino, the union-busting mayor of Boston, speaking via pre-recorded video; and a live videoconference with vice presidential candidate John Edwards.

The reality is that the New Unity Partnership program isn’t a return to the militant roots of the CIO, but an attempt to take on corporations by imitating them–with large, centralized organizations that can use resources more effectively. Any serious bid to organize the unorganized should be welcomed–and the New Unity Partnership could open a long overdue debate in the AFL-CIO in the run-up to the federation’s convention next year.

But its top-down methods and limited social vision are incapable of leading a genuine revival of the unions. That will only come when the real legacy of the CIO–a dynamic, militant rank and file organizing from below–is revived by a new generation of workers.

LEE SUSTAR is labor editor for Socialist Worker newspaper. He can be reached at: lsustar@ameritech.net