UNITE HERE, one of the unions that led the revolt to form the Change to Win labor federation four years ago, has rejoined the AFL-CIO – and leaders of the Twin Cities local couldn’t be happier.
“I felt it was going to be coming,” said Nancy Goldman, president of UNITE HERE Local 17. “I’m hoping that all of CTW (comes back). I hope we end up as one organization.”
UNITE HERE President John Wilhelm echoed that sentiment in comments to the national AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh, where he and members of the union were greeted by a standing ovation Thursday when the reaffiliation was announced.
“If we can serve in some small way as a bridge (to other Change to Win unions), we would be honored to do that,” Wilhelm told reporters.
UNITE HERE has 265,000 members in the hospitality industry, include hotels, restaurants and casinos. In July 2005, along with several other unions including the Teamsters, Service Employees International Union and Laborers, it left the AFL-CIO to form a rival labor federation called Change to Win. The leaders of the new federation said the AFL-CIO was too focused on political action and not enough on organizing new union members.
“I have no regrets for having participated as a founding member of Change to Win,” Wilhelm said. “I think it’s time we were all back in the same house.”
Since the split, the Change to Win federation has fractured. One of the leaders of UNITE HERE – Bruce Raynor – left the union to form a rival organization and is working with SEIU to organize the same people represented by UNITE HERE. In general, AFL-CIO unions have backed Wilhelm, but he said the organizing dispute had no bearing on his union’s decision to rejoin the AFL-CIO.
“SEIU has not absorbed the fact that their unprecedented effort to take over another international union has failed,” he said. “But that has nothing to do with reaffiliation with the AFL-CIO.”
Back in the fold in Minnesota
The leadership of Local 17 is excited about the reaffiliation announcement, but “in many ways we never left,” said Wade Luneburg, secretary-treasurer. “We have continued to work very closely with the local labor bodies.”
Thursday’s announcement will mean Local 17 will fully reaffiliate with the Minnesota AFL-CIO, he said.
In recent years, Local 17 has been one of the most progressive unions in Minnesota, organizing hundreds of workers, leading a major hotel strike in 2000 and standing up for the rights of immigrants. The union successfully fought efforts to deport undocumented workers involved in an organizing drive – and changed the labor movement’s policy on immigration in the process.
“We had a reason for leaving” the AFL-CIO, Luneburg noted. “Hopefully we’ll be able to broach those concerns” from within the organization.
In Minnesota, three UNITE HERE locals will be affected by the reaffiliation: Local 17 in the Twin Cities, Local 21 representing hospitality workers in Rochester and Local 1481 representing workers at Multek Flexible Circuits in Northfield.
Currently, the former UNITE HERE Local 99 in Duluth is part of Workers United, the organization started by Raynor.
On the floor of the convention in Pittsburgh, Wilhelm and newly elected AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka embraced. Trumka presented UNITE HERE with an AFL-CIO affiliation charter and announced that Wilhelm had been seated on the federation’s Executive Council.
“A united labor movement will serve the interests of working people during this time of incredible opportunity,” Trumka said.
“I’m so thrilled to be coming back at a time when in the land and in the House of Labor, there is great hope,” Wilhelm said.
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