By and  on February 9, 2009

WASHINGTON — A minority of elected leaders of UNITE HERE, the apparel and textile industry’s main union, voted Monday to dissolve the merger that brought 400,000 apparel and textile workers and hotel, laundry, restaurant and casino employees under one organization. Twenty-five members of the union’s general executive board said in a resolution that the decision to combine UNITE(the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees) and the larger HERE (the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union) in 2004 has been a “dismal failure.” However, 39 board members — a majority — voted against the resolution and in support of remaining unified. The resolution charges that a group led by John Wilhelm, the former president of HERE who is now the president of UNITE HERE’s hospitality division, “misspent millions of dollars of members’ money on programs that are failing and programs that advance their personal interests, causing the union to run an ever-growing budget deficit that threatens the viability of the union.” The break-up effort is being spearheaded by Bruce Raynor, general president of UNITE HERE, who, along with four members of the union’s executive committee, has also filed a federal lawsuit against Wilhelm and seven other committee members, accusing them of violating the union’s constitution. Raynor, in a column posted on the Huffington Post Web site Monday, accused Wilhelm of pursuing a hostile takeover and “squandering” the union’s resources and failing to adequately boost membership. “They want to seize control of the union and UNITE’s assets that were built through 100 years of hard work by low income, largely immigrant men and women so he can then redirect them to the failed programs of a few of his favorite locals,” Raynor wrote. “We will not let that happen.”

However, Wilhelm said the general executive board, which will meet again today, voted to stay unified by a 62 percent to 38 percent margin. He argued that the merger made sense and called the attempt to split the union “undemocratic.” “The disrespect Raynor shows our governing body of elected leaders is the same disrespect he shows the members of our union in his attempt to trample on their rights and futures,” Wilhelm said. “I am proud that today a large majority of our general executive board voted to remain unified. We will not permit Bruce Raynor to split the union by creating chaos and internal destruction.” The split has been brewing for months. Court papers contain allegations that Wilhelm and other former HERE executive vice presidents tried to force votes at an executive committee meeting in December on issues such as budgetary matters and other operational decisions. The resolution to dissolve the merger is the latest twist in a controversy that could have implications for organized labor’s overall agenda. It comes at a time when labor’s agenda in Washington had gained some traction with a labor-friendly president and Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate.

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