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UNITE HERE Infighting Goes On

HERE faction files a lawsuit against UNITE.

WASHINGTON — In the latest twist in the infighting between the two factions of UNITE HERE, the HERE faction has filed a lawsuit against UNITE as some joint boards and locals begin holding votes to disaffiliate.

This story first appeared in the March 3, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Some of UNITE’s 19 joint boards and several locals have already voted to disaffiliate with HERE, and the votes will continue across the country over the next two weeks, according to Edgar Romney, executive vice president of UNITE HERE and manager of the New York area metropolitan joint board. UNITE HERE represents 400,000 workers in the apparel, textile, hotel and restaurant industries.

Romney said HERE has filed a court action seeking to block the disaffiliation process. A spokeswoman representing John Wilhelm, president of UNITE HERE’s hospitality division, confirmed a lawsuit was filed on Friday but declined to comment on its substance.

Wilhelm went on the defense on Monday with the release of a nine-page white paper, rebutting many of the accusations the UNITE faction, led by general president Bruce Raynor, has made in two federal lawsuits, particularly those relating to alleged failures in increasing membership.

UNITE, formerly the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees, and the larger HERE, the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International, combined in 2004 with the goal of creating a well-funded and growing labor organization. But the two unions have been embroiled in a tense power struggle for the past several months between Raynor and Wilhelm, whose faction represents the majority in the merged union.

The dustup has culminated in three lawsuits — two filed in federal court by executives of the UNITE faction and the latest filed by HERE — as well as a minority vote by 25 members of the union’s general executive board approving a resolution to dissolve the merger.

Raynor’s group alleges in one lawsuit seeking dissolution that HERE has acted in a fraudulent and deceitful way and has hijacked financial resources and exerted undue control over the union. Wilhelm’s group has denied the allegations and claimed the UNITE faction is “shunning the democratic processes” of the union and violating its constitution.

Romney said he doesn’t believe HERE’s Wilhelm will be successful in the attempt to “prevent the UNITE side from disaffiliating.” Romney is a former executive of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, which combined in 1994 with the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union to form UNITE.

He said there have been discussions on the UNITE side, which claims to represent 150,000 of the union’s 400,000 members, about becoming a division of the Service Employees International Union, which has some two million members, if the breakup and dissolution is successful.

“The constitution very clearly prohibits secession from the union,” said Wilhelm’s spokeswoman. She said UNITE HERE has a “very open democratic process” and a convention in June that will serve as a forum to address UNITE’s issues.

In the white paper, Wilhelm defended the union’s organizing drives and said he expects significant gains in the gaming industry in the near future. He also raised questions about Raynor’s ability to organize workers on a large scale in the industrial laundry industry and his record of managing union funds.

Wilhelm alleges Raynor ran up a $328 million operating deficit from 1999 to 2003, liquidated $59 million in union real estate to finance the deficit and spent $427 million during the five-year period, for which he was forced to sell the ILGWU’s real estate assets.

Wilhelm also denied the accusation in a UNITE lawsuit that HERE was “in perilous financial condition” before the merger.