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Unions Set to Offer New Strategy

The leaders expect the New Unity Partnership to consolidate the labor organizations.

June 21, 2004|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

Presidents of several of the nation's largest and fastest-growing unions are expected to lay out plans at conventions this week and in July for fundamental changes in the structure and direction of the labor movement, changes that could result in a massive union consolidation and an overhaul of the AFL-CIO.

Heading organizations that represent janitors, hotel maids, carpenters, laundry workers and others, the five presidents have been quietly meeting for nearly a year to discuss what they call the New Unity Partnership. They envision a massive consolidation of unions in the U.S. -- from about 65 to 15 -- and a more national and global approach to organizing and bargaining.

Though they say change is urgent, the presidents have agreed to be low-key about their controversial ideas until after the presidential election in November. "Right now our focus is on beating George Bush," said Bruce Raynor, president of the garment and laundry workers' union UNITE. "There is nothing more important for American workers now."

There will, however, be previews at the upcoming conventions of the campaign the presidents say they will push relentlessly starting next year.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 22, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Union strategy -- An article in Monday's Business section about the expected merger of the garment and laundry workers union UNITE and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union misstated titles that Bruce Raynor and John Wilhelm would assume. Raynor would be general president, not president, and Wilhelm would be president for hospitality services, not secretary-treasurer.

In San Francisco this week, where several thousand members of the Service Employees International Union will attend their quadrennial convention, SEIU President Andrew Stern is expected to raise several of the key issues for discussion. Stern said on his daily Internet blog Friday that the convention would address, among other things, the need "to work with other unions to fundamentally change the labor movement's structure, culture and priorities to give working people a fighting chance to win again."

Stern leads the largest union in the AFL-CIO. With 1.6 million members, the SEIU is one of the few labor organizations that has grown in the last decade, through large strategic campaigns like the Justice for Janitors movement.

The next convention, starting July 6 in Chicago, will be historic, attended by members of UNITE and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. They are expected to ratify a merger between the two. The combined union, to be called UNITE-HERE, would combine militant memberships and leaders and would focus on low-wage hotel, laundry and other service workers. Raynor would be the president, and HERE President John Wilhelm would be secretary-treasurer.

Both presidents have said the merger should serve as an example to other unions, which they contend would be stronger if fewer in number.

The New Unity Partnership proposals have already generated heated discussion, and plenty of dissent, among union leaders and labor researchers. Some oppose the top-down nature of the discussions and say only grass-roots change will be sustainable. Others bristle at the idea of five union presidents deciding what's best for the movement as a whole. After all, the consolidations would require many smaller unions to give up their autonomy and traditions.

"Some people say it will just create more undemocratic structures," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at UC Santa Barbara. "But you have to do something. The union movement is in such a crisis today."

A decade after John Sweeney won the presidency of the AFL-CIO on a platform of organizing new members, unions have continued in their three-decade decline. The union share of the private workforce was 8.2% last year, down from 8.6% in 2002.

Few doubt that with that kind of showing, labor needs to start doing things differently. But many would prefer the change to happen through the AFL-CIO, the federation of 65 unions formed nearly 50 years ago by a merger of two labor organizations.

"We understand that there are great changes that have yet to be made and are desperately needed, and we need their help to make it happen," said Stewart Acuff, organizing director for the AFL-CIO. Clearly worried about the prospect of a rupture in organized labor, he added, "We are ever mindful of the absolute necessity of unity."

One of the five union presidents has already gone his own way. Doug McCarron, president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, left the AFL-CIO three years ago, saying he could use his union's membership money better for organizing. Since then, he said, the union membership has grown -- to 538,000 currently -- while most other unions have lost members.

"The world is changing," he said, "and if the labor movement doesn't start thinking more strategically, we're not going to have a future."

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