By Scott Malone

NEW YORK — Bruce Raynor offered a two-word explanation for why the members of the UNITE and HERE unions voted Thursday to merge: “Size matters.”

“This new union will be big enough to tackle any company that we get into it with,” Raynor, who now serves as general president of UNITE HERE, said in a phone interview about the battles ahead. “For the better companies, like Liz Claiborne and Levi’s and TJX, that want to take the high road, we’ll be a better partner.”

At separate meetings in Chicago, about 1,500 delegates representing UNITE and the Hotel & Restaurant Employees Union approved the merger agreement reached by their leaderships in February. The unions will have a combined membership of more than 440,000 workers and 400,000 retirees, a staff that surpasses 1,000, an operating budget exceeding $60 million a year and assets that include the $3.6 billion Amalgamated Bank, the only union-owned bank in the country.

Looking to build the organization further, Raynor said UNITE HERE’s first priority would be recruiting new members. The goal, he said, is “reversing the decline of labor union density in America.”

“The only way to do that, with traditional union bastions declining, is to organize the growth sectors,” Raynor said.

That means turning attention to service workers, both the restaurant employees that made up much of HERE’s ranks, and the back-office retail functions to which UNITE has recently been turning its attention. The new union remains part of the AFL-CIO.

He said the new union would spend more than half its annual budget on organizing new members and hopes to recruit more than 20,000 a year.

Another priority will be campaigning for the election of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. He said “hundreds” of staffers will be assigned to work full time on the campaign.

UNITE endorsed Edwards in his presidential bid and the vice presidential candidate is scheduled to address delegates at the union’s convention Saturday.

“We think Kerry-Edwards is a ticket that’s good for working families, but also good for middle-class people and good for America,” Raynor said. “We’re going to work very hard to see that they get elected.

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