With a Democratic majority in Congress, an economy in meltdown and what many see as the most labor-friendly White House in generations, unions would seem to be poised for a comeback. Experts say they are at a defining moment to rebuild their forces by putting their strength behind an effort to revamp labor laws.
FOR THE RECORD:
Unions: An article in Sunday's Section A about union infighting said Nelson Lichtenstein was a labor historian at UC Berkeley. He is the director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara. —
So why are some of the most prominent and progressive labor leaders spending time and energy fighting one another for workers who are already members? Will they squander their big chance?
"No question about it. That's what's at stake," said Marshall Ganz, a legendary community organizer and lecturer at Harvard University. "This is not a setting in which you want to have a Hatfield-and-McCoy struggle on."
As political institutions, labor unions are no strangers to controversy. But the current level of conflict is unusual, Ganz and others said, as is the public forum that it has been taking.
The leaders of Unite Here and representatives of its affiliates recently filed a series of lawsuits against each other, laced with complaints of fraud and theft, making public what had been an internal clash over power and organizing methods at the garment, hotel and laundry workers union.
The laundry and garment representatives, led by Unite Here General President Bruce Raynor, accuse hotel worker representatives of failing to increase membership and squandering the savings they brought into the union through a 2004 merger. Citing irreconcilable differences, Raynor wants a divorce.
"We tried to resolve it quietly," he said, "but we couldn't."
The hotel representatives, led by Unite Here's hospitality president, John Wilhelm, accuse their rivals of sabotaging democracy by conducting mass firings of union officials at locals in Detroit and Phoenix and by filing a lawsuit after the union's executive board voted against a breakup.
The dispute comes on the heels of last month's public skirmishes between the giant Service Employees International Union and its 150,000-member Oakland-based local, United Healthcare Workers-West. SEIU removed UHW leaders after they had refused to give up their home health aides to a new local.
The ousted officers, led by former UHW President Sal Rosselli, formed National Union of Healthcare Workers and began a massive campaign to court UHW members. More than a hundred SEIU staffers from around the country have descended on California to keep the UHW members and take over running the local. The fight made national news.
By at least one measure, the two fights are connected: SEIU President Andrew Stern has invited one or both sides of Unite Here to be absorbed into his 2-million-member international union.
"It's ugly," acknowledged Lowell Turner, a professor of comparative labor at Cornell University. But he said it might stand to reason that unions at the forefront of re-energizing the labor movement would find themselves in deep disputes over how exactly to do it.
"The timing is related to the fact that the unions are pushing much harder now to organize workers and pushing much harder politically now," Turner said.
Unite Here was formed when Unite, a union with lots of cash but facing a dwindling garment industry, merged with Here, a union with lots of hotel and food service prospects, but little cash.
Unite Here and SEIU are among a bloc of unions that formed Change to Win in 2005 and broke away from the AFL-CIO, saying they wanted to aggressively expand membership. Since the split, both groups have stepped up their organizing efforts, experts said.
In the last two years, unions nationwide have seen an increase in membership. In 2008, their ranks rose by 428,000 workers, the largest gain since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping track in 1983 -- which underscores how bad things had been rather than how good they have become.
In the 1950s, about 35% of U.S. workers were unionized. Last year, it was 12.4% overall, with only 7% in the public sector.
Labor experts say there hasn't been a particularly union-friendly president in the White House since John F. Kennedy. Until now.
"I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem," President Obama said last month. "To me, it's part of the solution."
Labor advocates point to signs large and small of Obama's labor leanings: the buy-American provisions in the stimulus package; his public support of sit-down strikers; his choice of Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte) as Labor secretary, who has yet to be confirmed by a divided Senate. When the president meets with labor leaders, he's been known to open up his jacket to show its union-made label -- and to threaten to check theirs.
Obama, as the junior senator from Illinois, was one of 233 congressional legislators who sponsored the Employee Free Choice Act of 2007. It is labor's dream bill to make it easier for workers to unionize and get a first contract, and to stiffen penalties for employers who threaten, fire or harass employees during union drives. They say it will balance power in the workplace.
Labor spent an estimated $450 million to help Obama get elected, with the hope of passing the legislation. He has vowed to sign it. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is leading an aggressive campaign to stop it from reaching his desk.
"They can't expect the president of the United States to encourage unionization when those that are unionized are fighting wars against each other," said Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Assn., which is in its own long-running fight with SEIU. "It's embarrassing to put that in front of Obama."
Several of the feuding union leaders agree this is a bad time for negative press, but say their issues are too deep to put aside. Whether the battles will torpedo their legislative goals, or merely be a sideshow, remains to be seen.
"It's a black eye," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at UC Berkeley. But he added that he thought it could be overcome: "The labor movement has a lot of ideological and political resources at their command right now."
The White House declined to comment on the matter.
Stern, the SEIU president, said he met with Obama and 27 senators last week, and that no one indicated that the union's internal conflicts were causing a problem. He sees the media attention as a sign that labor's prominence is finally increasing, he said.
"For a long time, the labor movement couldn't buy a newspaper story about anything, unless it was a strike," Stern said. "Now people are covering our internal politics. Part of me thinks that we're testing the theory that there's no bad publicity," he said.