The slow-motion UNITE HERE labor meltdown continues both locally and nationally. The merger of the two storied unions, completed five years ago, has been acrimoniously unraveling over the last nine months. It has left former allies feuding and led to litigation in the federal courts.
But at least one local entanglement appears to have resolved itself: This week negotiations will begin on a new contract for roughly 75 workers at the Radisson Hotel in Duluth.
A previous contract expired in March, but the Radisson had refused to negotiate a new one.
The reason: Management claimed confusion about which union properly represented their interests. The hotel workers belonged to UNITE HERE Local 99. But the Duluth local was part of a breakaway faction that voted to disaffiliate from UNITE HERE in March. It then reconstituted itself as Workers United Local 99 — part of a new union associated with the Service Employees International Union.
However, the leader of the jilted union sent a letter to the Radisson claiming it remained the proper bargaining agent. The hotel’s response to this dispute: Negotiate with no one.
But last month, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Workers United Local 99 is indeed the proper representative of the hotel workers. Negotiations on a new labor pact are slated to begin this week.
“We’ve always been the bargaining agent,” said Todd Erickson, president of Local 99. “Now we’re back to the table and they’re going to get their contract.”
Five years ago UNITE (formerly the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees) and HERE (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees) merged. At the time it looked like an ideal pairing. HERE focused on a group of workers that provided plenty of organizing targets. UNITE’s core industries had been ravaged by free-trade agreements, but it had plenty of money to go after new members.
But the partnership has since gone horribly sour. At the center of the battle is a clash between two of labor’s most charismatic figures, former national HERE leader John Wilhelm and former UNITE boss Bruce Raynor. In February, Raynor filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing his adversaries of violating the union’s constitution and seeking to seize control of the organization’s finances. Wilhelm’s faction counter-sued. The legal dispute continues to play out in federal courts. Then in March, several regional boards which oversee local unions voted to disaffiliate themselves from UNITE HERE. Those locals proceeded to form a breakaway union called Workers United that’s affiliated with the Service Employees International Union.
The fierce labor infighting comes at a time when organized labor is seeking the most dramatic overhaul of the nation’s labor laws in decades. Unions are feverishly lobbying in Washington, D.C., for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow workers to unionize when at least half the workforce signs off on cards indicating support for organizing.
The Duluth Radisson hang-up is not the only local ramification of the national divorce. A similar dispute is playing out with workers at the Hilton and Marquette hotels in downtown Minneapolis. UNITE HERE Local 17 has traditionally been the union representing the workers. But the Hilton Corp. is now claiming uncertainty about which union properly represents the hotel workers. Therefore it’s holding workers’ union fees in an escrow account rather than turning them over to Local 17. The dispute is now headed for arbitration.
“There isn’t any way in the world that arbitrator’s going to rule that money’s anybody’s but Local 17,” said Nancy Goldman, president of the union.
Local 17 officials believe the Hilton corporation is simply making life difficult for them ahead of looming contract talks.
“Hilton’s just basically playing a game,” said Wade Luneberg, treasury/secretary of Local 17. “They know that nationally we’re going into negotiations in 10 to 15 cities, so it’s a game.”
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