The strength of two newly-combined unions may be put to the test even before the merger process is completed, as hotel workers in nine of Los Angeles’ largest hotels face expiration of their contracts in mid-April. Employers could be seeking cuts in health care benefits.

UNITE HERE will be the name of the new union that comes out of the merger of two of the nation’s most aggressive and activist labor organizations.

The executive boards of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union and UNITE, the clothing, textile, and laundry union, voted unanimously Feb. 26 to merge the two organizations. The tentative agreement is expected to be ratified with a vote of rank-and-file members at a special joint convention in Chicago in July.

“You need to have strong unions that are capable of fighting the coming battles between workers and employers wanting to lower their living standards,” said UNITE’s president, Bruce Raynor. Raynor is known for his leadership of the 17-year-long JP Stevens campaign, which organized textile workers in the South. He will serve as the newly-formed union’s general president.

The new union will have the strength it needs to bargain with giant global corporations, said John Wilhelm, HERE president. Wilhelm will be UNITE HERE’s president/hospitality industries. The two men will share executive, budgetary and personnel authority, according to a joint press release.

HERE spearheaded last fall’s Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, which brought together hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters in support of a path to citizenship for America’s millions of immigrant workers. The majority of HERE’s members are immigrants, including Latinos and Asians. UNITE describes its membership as “ethnically diverse, with high percentages of African American and Latino and Asian immigrants.” Women make up the majority in both unions.

The merger represents a “nontraditional merger of two nontraditional unions,” said Wilhelm. Although there is some overlap in industries covered, particularly hospitality and laundry, the merger is presented as primarily a reflection of the two unions’ shared priorities – social justice and a commitment to organizing.

UNITE HERE, with a total membership of 440,000, will be headquartered in New York City.

The author can be reached at rwood@pww.org.

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