By and  on February 10, 2009

WASHINGTON — A group of 15 elected leaders claiming to represent 150,000 members of UNITE HERE, the apparel and textile industry’s main union, has filed a federal lawsuit to dissolve the merger of the union and split up its 400,000 members.

The breakaway group headed by UNITE HERE general president Bruce Raynor alleged that 39 members of the union’s general executive board, led by John Wilhelm, president of UNITE HERE’s hospitality division, “have engaged in conduct that destroys the basis for the merger of these unions.”

Wilhelm said the lawsuit was “frivolous” and includes false claims.

UNITE, then known as the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees, combined in 2004 with the larger HERE, the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International, with the goal of creating a well funded and growing labor powerhouse.

The suit said UNITE was stronger financially with 150,000 members and about $500 million in assets, while HERE had 200,000 members and less than $20 million. UNITE owns the New York-based Amalgamated Bank, the only union-owned bank in the country.

HERE was faced with a dire financial situation, little cash and few investments as a result of poor financial leadership, the court documents said. The situation was serious enough to affect pension and health benefit funds for some of the local unions.

Twenty-five members of the board voted in favor of a resolution on Monday to undo the merger and 39 members opposed it.

A previous federal lawsuit filed by the Raynor group accused Wilhelm and other committee members of trying to usurp Raynor’s power and violating the union’s constitution.

The latest lawsuit, filed Friday in Manhattan and disclosed Tuesday during a weeklong meeting of the board here, seeks to nullify the merger, return assets to UNITE and declare that HERE acted in a fraudulent, deceitful way. The complaint said the goals of the merger weren’t met and former HERE executives acted in bad faith to hijack financial resources and exert undue control over the union. HERE officials viewed the merger as “an opportunity to exploit UNITE and plunder its assets,” the lawsuit said.

It is “unfortunate that a small group within our union continues to attempt to shun the democratic processes that ensure representation of our members,” Wilhelm said.

The lawsuit said it was filed on behalf of more than 150,000 members, but Wilhelm asserted that board members who voted in favor of splitting the union represented 114,000 members who were not consulted about the proposed split.

“We will not permit Bruce Raynor to try and destroy our union’s democracy,” Wilhelm said.

There are two mechanisms in the union’s constitution to resolve disputes: a vote by the general executive board or a vote by a membership convention, Wilhelm said.

The UNITE faction is suing to reestablish an independent union under the banner UNITE, which itself was formed in a merger of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union in 1995.

The union’s independent review board has asked the U.S. Labor Department to investigate whether a statute protecting union members’ rights has been violated.

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