By  on March 23, 2009

WASHINGTON — Hundreds of members of UNITE HERE, who voted to disaffiliate from the union two weeks ago, held a convention in Philadelphia on Saturday to form a new union, called Workers United, and develop a platform, adopt a constitution and elect officers.

The move is the latest twist in a battle between two factions of UNITE HERE which is seen as unprecedented in the modern age by labor experts.

“I cannot readily in a contemporary period think of a case where two national unions merged and, for that matter, a large national and maybe even a smaller regional union merged and then broke away,” said Robert Bruno, associate professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Bruce Raynor, general president of UNITE HERE, is leading the broader effort to separate from the union and end a five-year-old merger. John Wilhelm, president of UNITE HERE”s hospitality division and head of the HERE faction, is fighting to keep the union intact.

UNITE, the former Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees, and HERE, the former Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union, merged in 2004 to form a bigger union with more economic and political clout.

After months of political infighting, 450 delegates from the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico claiming to represent 150,000 members, including 40,000 from the former HERE union, moved forward at the founding convention in Philadelphia to form their own union.

Delegates elected Edgar Romney, manager of the New York Metropolitan Joint Board, as president of the new union.

In addition, Alex Dagg of the Ontario Council was elected as secretary treasurer. Noel Beasley of the Midwest and Chicago Joint Board, and Lynne Fox of the Philadelphia Joint Board, were elected executive vice presidents.

“When we merged with HERE five years ago, we believed it would benefit our members and improve our ability to organize our industries.” said Romney. “But it quickly became clear that the merger did not work. We had to leave UNITE HERE because that union was not putting workers first.”

Romney said there was a constant battle over resources and a major break in philosophy over the allocation of resources, the political strategy and the endorsement of political candidates.

On Saturday, the delegates also authorized the new executive board to discuss with the Service Employees International Union, which has two million members, an affiliate agreement, Romney said. He stressed it would not be a merger agreement, which is more permanent, but an affiliate agreement with an opt-out clause.

Meanwhile, Raynor said in a letter supplied to WWD that he intends to stay on as general-president of UNITE HERE until his term ends in July. He said he hopes to settle the internal dispute between the two factions of UNITE HERE over how to separate the union’s assets, members and jurisdictions.

Wilhelm on Friday called the convention “a hostile takeover by the SEIU” and its president, Andy Stern.

“To wit, the splinter group represents fewer than one third of UNITE HERE’s total membership and is taking this action in blatant disregard of the law and the union’s constitution,” Wilhelm said. “Local unions representing two-thirds of UNITE HERE want no part of this SEIU takeover.”

Fifteen joint boards voted to disaffiliate from the union two weeks ago, but UNITE HERE’s general executive board voted on March 16 to block the disaffiliation, revoke the charters of those 15 boards, recover all property of the joint boards and take immediate legal action against their managers.

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