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Top Union Representing Hotel Workers, HERE, Merging with Union of Needletrades, Industrial
and Textile Employees; 
Follows Trend of Consolidation in Organized Labor
By Jane M. Von Bergen, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News 

Feb. 27, 2004 - Two national labor unions, both known as aggressive and strategic organizers, will merge, their leaders said yesterday. 

The merger of the nation's leading textile workers' union, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile employees (UNITE), and the top union representing hospitality workers, Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE), follows a trend of consolidation in organized labor that in some ways mirrors similar trends in the business world. 

With a combined base of 460,000 workers, the new union will be called UNITE HERE, and it expects to recruit more aggressively and to flex greater political muscle, the leaders said. 

The two unions have about 25,000 members in this region, from the casino workers in Atlantic City to public school cafeteria workers in Philadelphia to textile workers in the city and Pennsylvania suburbs. 

"What is unique," said Bruce Raynor, UNITE's president, is that "this is not a defensive merger. These unions could go it alone." But, he said, they have chosen to combine "two of the most aggressive and very successful organizing unions" that are dedicated to "raising the living standard of low-wage workers." 

The unions' members share many common characteristics: They are overwhelmingly female. Many work in low-wage jobs. And most of them belong to minority or immigrant groups. 

Raynor will serve as general president of the new union, and John Wilhelm, who is president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, will be president/hospitality industries. They will share personnel and budget decisions from headquarters in New York. 

Raynor's union has already endorsed North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as the Democratic nominee, while HERE backs the AFL-CIO's choice -- Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. But both union presidents said they would back the Democratic nominee, whoever he is. 

That should be settled by July, when the two groups go through formal merger procedures. 

HERE is beginning to recover from the devastating blow that terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, dealt the union. Tourism fell off. Hotels, airlines and restaurants laid off workers as the economy declined. The union went from 272,000 members on Sept. 10, 2001, to 150,000 members by January 2002. Now membership is back up to 260,000 despite continued slowness in the airline business and the industry's decision to curtail food service on planes. 

But, Wilhelm said, the hospitality business has potential for union growth. "The hospitality has the great advantage that it can't move overseas," he said. "As our economy changes into a service economy," he said, it will be up to unions to turn "service sector jobs into good jobs that sustain communities. 

"People talk about manufacturing jobs like God ordained they were great jobs," he said. But manufacturing jobs were low-wage and dangerous "until UNITE and other unions made them into good jobs. The same thing can be done in the service sectors." 

While UNITE's traditional base of textile workers has been declining as textile manufacturing moves overseas, eroding membership by 25,000 in the last two years, the union has still managed to add 15,000 members in the last two years. That is partly due to UNITE's reaching beyond the textile factory and into service sectors, including industrial laundry. UNITE is currently working to organize Cintas Corp., a uniform company. If it succeeds, it will represent half the laundry workers in America. 

And the immediate gain in leverage for that campaign is obvious, Wilhelm said. 

"Our members wear those uniforms," he said. "They put those linens on the beds" in hotels and "on tables in restaurants." 

Both unions, said Kate Brofenbenner, director of labor studies at New York's Cornell University, share a social-justice perspective and a similar organizing philosophy. They have, she said, become masters of the "bottom-up and top-down" method of organizing. They work to involve the workers at their jobs, combining old-fashioned house visits and door-to-door campaigning with sophisticated use of media, legislation and the courts. 

Wilhelm, 58, made his reputation by turning Las Vegas into a union town after organizing 22,000 casino, hotel and restaurant workers, Brofenbenner said. Wilhelm overcame skeptics who insisted that it could not be done, she said. 

Raynor, 54, has a similar reputation earned by organizing textile workers in the anti-union South, she said. He led a 17-year campaign to organize textile workers at J.P. Stevens. 

Locally, the reaction to the move was positive. Patrick Coughlin, regional director of HERE, Thurston Hyman, president of Local 274 in Philadelphia, Sam Cook, president of Local 621 in Philadelphia, and Lynne Fox, business manager of the Philadelphia Joint Board of UNITE, said the merger would lead to operating efficiencies and more clout. 

For example, the hospitality workers rent their headquarters in Philadelphia, but UNITE owns its building here. There are places where both unions are organizing different sets of workers for the same company. 

"We're going to pull it all together and take the city of Philadelphia by storm," Fox said. "That's absolutely our plan." 

-----To see more of The Philadelphia Inquirer, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to

(c) 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. CTAS, 


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