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Lingering Issues Remain for Philadelphia Area Hospitality Workers
Following Breakup of Merged Unite Here Union

By Jane M. Von Bergen, The Philadelphia InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Nov. 01, 2010--Except for the hard feelings, an acrimonious divorce between two once-merged unions is mostly over, with bartenders, hotel clerks, cafeteria servers, stadium catering staff, waiters, and laundry workers finally clear about which union will negotiate their contracts and handle their grievances.

At stake were hundreds of thousands of union members nationwide, their dues, and assets that included a Manhattan office building and the $4.5 billion Amalgamated Bank, the only bank owned by a labor union.

The custody battle played out particularly tough in Philadelphia, where at least 5,000 workers were involved -- including up to 2,000 employed at the three sports arenas in South Philadelphia and more than 1,000 at union hotels in the area.

"It was hard for us union members," said Corean Holloway, a 24-year laundry worker at the Radisson Plaza-Warwick Hotel in Center City.

"We didn't know who was who," she said.

Even their employers are relieved to see the battle end.

"It was kind of a mess," said Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association. "The employees didn't know who was representing them."

Aramark spokeswoman Kristine Grow agreed.

"We are pleased to finally have the clarity that allows us to move forward," Grow said. Aramark Corp., the global catering company with headquarters in Philadelphia, provides food service at the stadiums, the Convention Center, and local colleges.

In July, the warring unions announced a detente, setting the stage for arbitration to resolve the divorce that began early in 2009, nearly five years after they joined forces.

One union was called Unite, the other was called Here. In 2004, they formed Unite Here, a marriage of the textile and laundry workers represented by Unite and the hospitality workers represented by Here.

But Unite Here did not remain united. The original Unite leaders broke away to form Workers United. They held their organizing convention in Philadelphia in March 2009. The other half of the once-merged unions retained the Unite Here name.

In Atlantic City and many other cities, it was clear which workers would go where after the breakup.

But in Philadelphia, union hospitality workers had come under the leadership of the textile union, led by lawyer Lynne Fox and Unite's Philadelphia Joint Board.

Workers at some hotels were loyal to the Joint Board; those at other hotels wished to remain with the reorganized Unite Here.

Competing groups of workers at Citizens Bank Park had allegiances to the two unions. Both the Joint Board and Unite Here battled to continue to represent Philadelphia School District cafeteria workers. Those workers ultimately voted to join Unite Here in a separate election.

Meanwhile, employers withheld union dues, unsure of whom to pay.

A key element in the July detente was an agreement to arbitrate disputed areas.

In Philadelphia, the arbitration was completed in late September, with the decisions effective Oct. 1.

Unite Here gets hotel workers, gaming employees at Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack, and some catering workers at the Philadelphia International Airport.

The Philadelphia Joint Board, now part of Workers United, keeps its textile, laundry, and manufacturing employees, along with concession workers at the airport.

Aramark's workforce is divided, with stadium workers going to Unite Here. University cafeteria food-service workers remain with the Joint Board. The Joint Board also keeps about 110 Aramark catering workers at the Convention Center.

But, in another wrinkle, some Convention Center workers do not want to be represented by the Joint Board. They gave the National Labor Relations Board a long list of complaints against Fox and her organization last week. Their NLRB filing says the Joint Board has "abandoned the bargaining unit," refusing to handle certain grievances.

Earlier, the Convention Center workers filed a petition seeking to quit the Joint Board to form their own union, the Pennsylvania Convention Center Service Employees Union. That petition is pending before the NLRB.

"The truth is that we gave them [the Joint Board] a chance," said Shirley Slaughter, leader of the Convention Center workers.

"She's speaking for herself and her dissidents," Fox responded, adding that other Convention Center workers were loyal to the Joint Board.

A Union Divorce

The unions

Unite -- former textile union

Here -- former hospitality union

Time line

July 2004: Unite and Here join to form Unite Here

March 2009:

Former Unite leaders break away, start Workers United. Remaining group retains Unite Here name.

Two sides begin nationwide fight for custody of members, dues, assets.

July 2010: Separation agreement.

Fall 2010: Final arbitration in various cities, including Philadelphia.

Philadelphia custody

Unite Here now represents hotel and Philadelphia public school cafeteria workers, along with employees at the three South Philadelphia stadiums and Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack.

Workers United (Philadelphia Joint Board) has laundry and textile workers, food-service workers at local colleges, and Convention Center employees.

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or jvonbergen@phillynews.com.

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To see more of The Philadelphia Inquirer, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.philly.com/inquirer.

Copyright (c) 2010, The Philadelphia Inquirer

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