|By Stephen Franklin, Chicago Tribune|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
July 7, 2004 - When Cristina Vazquez started out on the floor of a Los Angeles garment factory there were few immigrants like her in union jobs, and garment industry jobs were everywhere.
Twenty years later, garment industry jobs are few and vanishing, while the Ecuadorian-born Vazquez is a top-ranking union leader, and her union is eager to become the voice for immigrants.
"Immigrants are the ones who've been making the changes in Los Angeles. They are re-energizing the labor movement in Los Angeles," said Vazquez, a regional manager for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).
As delegates from her union gather in Chicago this week to vote on a proposed merger with the hotel workers union, there is much talk about the combined power and matching philosophies of unions similarly made up largely of women, minorities and immigrants.
Leaders of 180,000-member UNITE and the 260,000-member Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) expect 1,500 union delegates on Thursday to approve the merger and then stage a celebratory march up Michigan Ave. afterwards.
Their new union faces a heap of challenges ranging from garment and textile companies devastated by imports, to hotels suffering from slumping tourism to companies determined to stay union free.
"We can't just treat things like they were the same," said Wilfredo Larancuent, who heads UNITE's laundry worker division in the New York area.
With over 40,000 laundry workers, many signed up in recent years, the union has its eyes on the 150,000-worker industry nation-wide, said Larancuent, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who worked his way up in the union's ranks.
Martin Malin, a labor law professor at ITT-Kent Law School, who describes the two unions as among labor's most innovative, said of the new union: "I am watching it very carefully.
"It is really clear that the 1950s and 1960s paradigm is not very successful in the 21st century and organized labor has to figure out how to adapt," he said.
Labor's share of the workforce dropped to 12.9 percent last year, a low not seen since the late 1930s.
Officials from the two unions say they realize what they are up against.
In the new union, known as UNITE HERE, Bruce Raynor, who has been president of UNITE, will be general president. John Wilhelm, who has headed HERE, will serve as president with responsibility over the union's hospitality industry.
As the two point out, both of their unions spend about half of their budgets on organizing new members, a figure that puts them well ahead of most other unions.
UNITE, which has much deeper pockets than HERE, also boasts the largest staff among U.S. unions that is devoted to battling companies on organizing drives and contract issues.
The two also joined three other union leaders last year in creating a loose coalition called the New Unity Partnership. Their goal, they said at the time, was to shake up organized labor with new ideas, and they have done that.
One of their ideas is that unions should organize according to industries, and not grab up whatever workers they can. Another is that unions need to merge to coordinate their powers.
Rick Hurd, a Cornell University labor expert, says that they living up to their word by merging their unions. "What they are trying to do is set an example," he added.
"I think it is a bit of a questionable match in industries, but it makes a perfect fit in terms of philosophy, the style of organizing and the targeted industries," he said.
Wilhelm defends the move as "the ideal marriage."
Both unions, he said, have large numbers of immigrant workers and have championed their cause in recent years. And both unions, he said, can rely on their manpower and geographic sprawl as they organize more members.
Besides the usual suspects -- hotels, restaurants and garment makers, the new union's organizing targets are likely to be industrial laundries, the apparel industry -- going from sales to manufacturing, giant food service providers, and the booming casino industry.
While the hotel workers represent about 50 percent of the employees in hotels in the nation's major cities, they only account for 10 percent of all hotel workers across the U.S., Wilhelm said.
When the tourism industry fell into a deep swoon after the 9/11 terrorism, up to half of the hotel workers' members were out of work. Many have since returned, but the union is still down by at least 10 percent of its membership, said Wilhelm.
One advantage for Wilhelm's union is that UNITE, which also owns the New York-based Amalgamated Bank, is in much better financial health.
"Our finances are just fine if we just want to keep going and grow slowly. But if we want to organize on a very large scale then our finances aren't sufficient," Wilhelm said.
Such financial resources may soon come in handy in the Los Angeles area, where the hotel workers have run into rough bargaining.
The union wants a two-year contract so that it lines up the expiration dates among its contracts in the nation's major cities. That way the union would be able to exert power nationally, rather than having to bargain city by city.
But the Los Angeles area hotel owners have balked, saying they want a five-year contract.
As union delegates on Tuesday scurried about at the Sheraton Hotel, where Janja Subasic earns $10.75 an hour as a second-shift turn down attendant, she acknowledged that she wasn't aware that her union, the hotel workers, were about to take a historic step.
But the 40-year-old who arrived in the U.S. eight years ago as a refugee from Bosnia said she knows that there is a Bosnian-speaker at the union hall whom she call for help, and whenever she has a problem on the job somebody from Local 1 shows up.
"I have friends in other hotels and the pay is okay, but they don't have rights," she added.
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