CHICAGO – Two of the nation’s most active unions formalized their merger here July 8-10. The action put into life the kind of new tactics that their leaders say are needed to reverse the decline of organized labor’s numbers.

The 180,000 members of the clothing, textile and laundry workers union, UNITE, joined forces and acronyms with 260,000-members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees to form UNITE HERE!

Women make up the majority of the new organization’s 440,000 members and 400,000 retirees. Most members are immigrants, and there are substantial numbers of African Americans as well. The convention proceedings were simultaneously translated from English into three languages: Spanish, Chinese and, for the sizeable Quebec delegation, French.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, whose grandmother worked as a hotel worker for 50 years, called himself officiating over the “marriage” of the two unions. The wedding vows he administered as the delegates raised their right hands dramatized the basis of their union: “I do pledge to organize, register to vote, work for quality education and universal health care,” they repeated. Then Jackson got right to the point. “La-

bor must go on the offensive,” he urged. “‘We will not back down’ must be your message.”

After voting separately on the merger proposal July 8, the unions had planned a celebratory march up Michigan Avenue. But Chicago police, in full riot gear, accompanied by hovering helicopters, blocked the hotel exits and forced the throng onto nearby side streets, enraging both the delegates and local labor leaders.

Both unions and their leaders have formidable organizing histories. UNITE President Bruce Raynor spent the ’70s in the South in the historic textile organizing campaign that included the JP Stevens mills. In recent years UNITE has organized 30,000 industrial laundry workers and is currently targeting industry leader CINTAS. HERE’s John Wilhelm was involved in the landmark six-year-long Frontier Hotel strike, and just this year a hard-fought victory at Yale University.

The new union vowed to take part in a joint effort with “sister union” SEIU to organize Sodexho, the “Wal-Mart of the service industry.” Sodexho employs 110,000 workers in the U.S. and 308,000 worldwide, providing food service, housekeeping, grounds keeping, plant operations and maintenance and laundry services to corporations, schools, colleges, nursing homes, and military sites.

U.S. food service and hotel workers average only $14,745 a year, according to a union statement. Manufacturing jobs, which average three times that pay, were similarly low-paid before the organizing drives of the 1930s and ’40s. The statement cited the example of the $19 an hour earned by union housekeepers in New York City, where more that 90 percent of the full service hotels are organized, compared to the average national wage for hotel housekeepers of $8.14.

Raynor and Wilhelm argued for a “strategic” approach to organizing, claiming that the current structure of the labor movement “is in the way of empowering workers.” They are part of a controversial new formation, the New Unity Partnership, that demands a radical restructuring of the AFL-CIO to create fewer, stronger unions with jurisdictions and organizing plans that take on whole industries. UNITE HERE will reach out to workers around the globe, said Wilhelm. “Workers of the world must indeed unite.” Convention speakers included leaders of the other NUP unions, Terrence O’Sullivan of the Laborers Union, Andrew Stern of the Service Employees and Doug McCarron of the Carpenters, which has withdrawn from the AFL-CIO.

Some labor activists question the timing of calls for a radical restructuring on the eve of the critical November elections. Wilhelm appeared to be addressing that concern when he said “all of us must focus on the driving out the most dangerous administration in American history between now and Nov. 2.” But, he added, “on Nov. 3 we will join with our comrades in NUP and other unions who share our concerns and debate how best can the labor movement structure itself” in preparation for July 2005 when the AFL-CIO meets in convention.

Both Wilhelm and Raynor made clear that their calls for AFL-CIO restructuring were not an attack on its president, John Sweeney. They credited him with nearly doubling voting participation of union households and putting the full weight of the federation behind last fall’s Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride.

Sweeney for his part congratulated the unions for their “courage” in taking the merger steps. “Few union take the steps that are mandatory if our movement is to survive and thrive,” he said. “If we don’t take a clue from you and reach farther and move faster, we have no hope.” Sweeney received a sustained standing ovation when he decried “reckless politicians who send our loved one off to fight wars on the basis of lies.”

Raynor will be the organization’s general president, and Wilhelm will be the president for hospitality industries. Headquarters will be in New York. Among UNITE HERE’s nine executive vice presidents is Maria Elena Durazo, the leader of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride.

The author can be reached at rwood@pww.org.click here for Spanish text

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