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The battle for Local 634 – What’s at stake?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

(UPDATE: Ballots have been counted, and UNITE will represent Local 634.)

Ballots went out last week in an election that will determine who will represent the School District of Philadelphia’s 2,300 food service workers and noon-time aides. The control of Local 634, historically represented by the Hotel and Restaurant workers union, is being challenged by a Workers United, an amalgam of the Philadelphia Joint Board of UNITE, which traditionally represents garment workers, the powerful SEIU, the nation’s largest union.

While on the surface this might seem to be a food fight in the cafeteria with a welter of claims and counter claims by both sides, it is an important struggle with implications for the whole labor movement.

It also is of vital importance to an important and largely neglected part of the School District labor force. These workers staff the cafeterias and lunchrooms of our schools, making sure students are fed and cared for. Their pay ranges from $9.52 an hour for a noon-time aide to $13.15 for the highest category of food service work.

In current contract talks, the union is fighting for better wages, benefits, and protection from subcontracting. School District custodial workers, in rival union SEIU, have seen an erosion of their wages as a consequence of contracting out, an issue teachers face as well with the threatened privatization of many schools.

No less than teachers and other school employees, the food service workers need and deserve a strong union. In the minds of many workers, that’s what is at issue in the current contest between the rival unions. Denise Weaver, a Food Service Worker at Anna H. Shaw Middle School, put it this way: "I’m fighting with my union for my contract, safer work conditions, more money, and more opportunity. I’m supporting Local 634 because I’ve been with Local 634 for 18 and a half years. It’s always been my local and it will always be my local."

The battle here is part of the fallout of a failed merger between HERE, a union based in the hotel, food service, and gaming industries, and UNITE, itself the product of earlier mergers that brought together the remnants of the old needle trades unions and the textile workers.

When the merger happened five years ago, it was widely regarded as promising marriage of two unions that had bucked the trend of declining membership by successful organizing, particularly among low-income and immigrant workers. HERE had an edge in terms of membership and organizing potential. UNITE had unusual financial resources including Manhattan real estate and the nation’s only union-owned bank. Both unions had leadership and staff with a demonstrated commitment to organizing the unorganized.

But earlier this year the merged union, UNITE HERE, went up in smoke amidst charges and counter-charges and an ugly series of fire fights across the country as the two sides fight over the pieces.

Bruce Raynor, the president of the merged union who formerly was head of UNITE, led his forces, many but not all the former UNITE locals and staff, out of the union–taking the bank and other assets with him. John Wilhelm, the leader of HERE, has the loyalty of most of the old HERE membership and is challenging in the courts the Raynor group’s control of financial resources. Efforts at mediation between the two sides by United Food and Commercial Workers head Joe Hansen failed.

The Raynor UNITE faction then merged with mega-union SEIU, headed by one-time Philadelphian Andy Stern. This has escalated the fight since SEIU has the resources to contest control of traditional HERE locals, which is exactly what’s going on Philadelphia. The Workers United union (Philadelphia Joint Board plus SEIU) is going after both Local 634 and Local 274, the HERE local that represents hotels and restaurants in the city.

It’s hard to see this as anything but a raid.

Both these locals have always been part of HERE. The elected leadership support HERE and have significant rank and file support. Workers United points to the Philadelphia Joint Board’s control of the locals during the merger period, a meeting it organized that voted to remain part of the Joint Board, and a petition for a representational election signed by an estimated 30% of the membership.

In response, UNITE HERE argues the meeting organized by the Joint Board was bogus and WORKERS UNITED has used dirty tricks and false representations to acquire signatures on the election petition.

According to UNITE HERE staff, SEIU organizers are impersonating UNITE HERE Local 634 on the phone and at the doors when they are canvassing, including wearing red T-shirts, the same color used by UNITE HERE on its shirts. You can watch competing versions of the the struggle online.

Nationally 14 major labor leaders, including the presidents of teachers, steelworkers, communications workers, and AFSCME, have come out in support of UNITE HERE and against raids on its membership. These leaders undoubtedly fear future raids on their own turf. Locally, Central Labor Council President Patrick Eiding has declared his neutrality. Eiding told the Inquirer “The value of Rolaids becomes very high at a time like this.” Nationally more than two dozen local labor councils have come out in support of UNITE HERE.

So what’s at stake here in what Pat Eiding called a “fight of the titans”? Looking beyond the immediate conflict some critical differences between the two groups emerge that can be summarized with some qualifications as a top-down versus a bottom-up approach to building the power of the labor movement.

The culture of UNITE dating from the era of union icons Sidney Hillman and David Dubinsky has been that of a centralized, top-down organization with little rank and file involvement. (Full disclosure I was a member of the Philadelphia Joint Board during the 1970s and was involved in a struggle to democratize the union, then the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union of America).

SEIU has had significant success in bringing thousands into the union movement. However, in recent years some of its methods have been called into question. The union has gained membership in some cases won by trading important worker prerogatives for union recognition. Partnership agreements with companies in which corporations agree not to oppose unionization in return for concessions have come under fire in the health care industry and elsewhere.

A case in point is the Service Workers United, a joint effort of SEIU and UNITE HERE headed up by Bruce Raynor, who served as chief negotiator. In meetings with food service companies Sodexho, Compass, and Aramark the union agreed to giving up the workers’ right to strike and accepted sub-par contract standards, a cap on union membership, and allowing the companies to choose where the union could organize. This all before a single worker had signed a union card.

UNITE HERE, it should be noted, has also employed card check agreements with employers but has done so in the context of mass mobilization of the membership as in their Hotel Workers Rising campaign.

A national local headquartered in New York represented SWU’s scattered membership, servicing them by assigning local UNITE HERE staffers and an 800 number for two-step grievances. A detailed discussion of SWU is in the current edition of Labor Notes.

Union democracy and organizing strategy have also been key issues in the split among SEIU health workers in California with insurgent Sal Rosselli. In an interview with Labor Notes, Rosselli said: “If SEIU goes in the direction that Stern is currently leading it, it will become a business union movement, a service-type organization, as opposed to where we’re coming from. We want to build a real movement of workers, a real social movement union—for workers by workers— where workers are encouraged and trained to be decision-making leaders.”

John Wilhelm, the leader of UNITE HERE, frames the differences between UNITE HERE and the Workers United/SEIU in much the same terms. Speaking at this year’s convention, Wilhelm said, “Now we find the labor movement at a crossroads. There’s a top-down strategy that stifles creativity and begs employers to let us organize. That strategy requires, by definition, crushing union democracy."

HERE has a tradition of local autonomy, a problem in the past where corruption in some locals was an issue, but an asset now as the union fights off raiding. Wilhelm rose to prominence on the strength of a series of successful organizing drives in Las Vegas, which turned an open shop city into a union town. He has seemingly put his money where has mouth is by supporting a whole range of policy resolutions at the recent UNITE HERE convention to promote more democracy including checks on the power of the president, controls over local mergers and the right to arbitration in cases where the national union puts a local in trusteeship, a practice that removes authority from the local. Measures to increase racial and gender diversity in the leadership and a membership bill of rights were also passed.

Both sides acknowledge that organizing strategy was a source of division in the merged union, differences that have become more pronounced with the entrance of SEIU into the picture. HERE promotes the development of worker leadership, working to establish committees that play a critical role in organizing campaigns. SEIU/UNITE accuse the HERE side of missing opportunities by dogmatically hewing to this course which typically takes a long time. Harold Meyerson’s three-part article for American Prospect is an interesting discussion of these differences.

The issues raised by the break up of UNITE HERE need to be debated by all those concerned about reviving the power of labor. Meanwhile, in the Local 634 election, the deadline for casting ballots is today and the results should be forthcoming.

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