Representatives of laundry and garment workers said they would vote today on whether to withdraw from their union, Unite Here, with an eye toward establishing formal ties with the Service Employees International Union.
But Unite Here's majority leadership said the union's constitution prohibits affiliates from deciding on their own to secede.
The vote marks an escalation of hostilities within Unite Here, which was created in 2004 by a merger of the former Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. The groups have clashed over organizing methods and power in the union, which represents more than 450,000 workers.
Leaders of the former Unite workers, who make up about a third of Unite Here, say their counterparts have squandered money on organizing that moves too slowly and has failed to live up to expectations. They want to leave before the merged union's first convention this summer.
Leaders of the former Here members recently voted down a motion to allow the split. They said the merger still made sense and resulted in a stronger group.
The civil war has now gone public, with each side filing lawsuits against the other in various venues across the country, including one lawsuit asking a federal judge for a split.
Bruce Raynor, Unite Here's general president and former head of Unite, accuses John Wilhelm, president of the union's hospitality division, of holding unhappy workers hostage in the merged union.
"These workers want to end the merger to protect their history and their futures," Raynor said in a statement.
Wilhelm in turn accused Raynor of grabbing for power and trying to take more with him than he came with, including some hospitality locals and rights to organize in former Here industries.
"That'd be a boss' dream, to have two unions fighting over the same jurisdiction," Wilhelm said in a recent interview. "It's loony in a country that's 90% nonunion."
Amalgamated Bank and other valuable assets that Unite brought into the merger are also a subject of contention.
Today's vote will be held by 15 joint boards, umbrella leadership groups dating back to Unite's former union. The boards fall between the local unions and the parent international syndicate and represent mostly laundry, garment and other former Unite unions. A thousand officials and delegates representing 150,000 members in the U.S. and Canada are expected to cast ballots.
Wilhelm canceled a media briefing on the subject Friday, days after his faction tried to block the vote in federal court, where some of the conflicts are being heard. A judge declined to step in, both sides said.