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August 21, 2014

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LABOR:

Unite Here even more split as co-leader resigns in huff

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Leila Navidi

Former Unite Here General President Bruce Raynor appears in 2007 with workers in Las Vegas. He resigned from his position on Friday.

A bitter, protracted leadership struggle within one of the nation’s most progressive unions apparently ended Friday when Unite Here General President Bruce Raynor resigned, ceding control of the international apparel and hotel workers union to the man with whom he shared power, John Wilhelm.

Raynor said he decided to quit after Wilhelm’s allies, accompanied by nearly a dozen security guards, broke into his New York office and stole personal files related to mediation sessions aimed at reconciling the two leaders’ differences.

“It was more reminiscent of the Sopranos than anything I’ve ever seen in my trade union career,” Raynor said in an interview. “It sickened me. It convinced me that things had gone so far that I no longer wanted to be associated with Unite Here.”

A Wilhelm spokeswoman disputed Raynor’s version of events, saying that union officials were responding to repeated reports from Unite Here staff who had witnessed the destruction of documents in the union’s New York headquarters. “Our lawyers advised us to take precautions to make sure that the office and its equipment were secure,” spokeswoman Pilar Weiss said. “The files were the property of the union, not Bruce Raynor.”

Weiss also noted that Raynor, who was suspended by Unite Here’s executive board last month, was set to face internal charges Friday for using union resources to dismantle Unite Here and set up a competing organization. Raynor has denied those charges.

It was the latest altercation between the two men. Raynor and Wilhelm, the Unite Here co-president who heads the hospitality-industry side of the union, have been engaged in a high-profile fight over Unite Here’s resources and the direction of the union for the past six months.

The two charismatic leaders created Unite Here by merging their respective unions in 2004 with the goal of organizing large numbers of workers across the country. On paper, the idea made sense: Raynor and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees had money — and the country’s only union-owned bank — but fewer workers to organize in the shrinking textile industry. Wilhelm and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees were starved for cash but saw ample organizing opportunity in the burgeoning service sector.

Relations between the two leaders turned icy over the past year as they worked with a mediator to resolve the conflict. Raynor said he wanted the union split when a mediator pronounced the situation “hopeless” in November. Raynor said the merger had failed, that the two unions had organized more workers separately than they had together.

He sued Wilhelm and his allies on the union’s executive board, including Culinary leader D. Taylor, arguing that they sought to take over the union.

Wilhelm countered that Raynor, facing a tough reelection battle at the union’s upcoming convention, was acting out of self-interest and using Unite Here resources to lead a secession movement.

Whatever the reason, Raynor promoted secession — and entertained an offer from labor leader Andy Stern to join his Service Employees International Union. Although Raynor opted to complete his term as Unite Here general president, his former Unite allies took 150,000 members and formed a new SEIU affiliate, Workers United.

Wilhelm accused Stern of engineering a hostile takeover of the union’s hotel and casino jurisdictions. And last week he alleged in a letter to fellow labor leaders that Raynor and Stern struck an arrangement with infamous private investigator Terry Lenzner to investigate Wilhelm and his family.

Representatives of Stern and Raynor denied Wilhelm’s contention.

Raynor said Friday he was taking a leadership post in the new Workers United affiliate.

“This fight is irresponsible and it’s got to end,” Raynor said of the schism. “There is no doubt it’s hurt the labor movement and the efforts of working people.”

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