Unionized workers in Chicago and around the United States today called on their leaders to end a dispute between their embattled labor groups.
In a meeting at the Hyatt Regency Chicago this morning, six workers explained that the ongoing dispute hurts their negotiations with employers and the labor movement as a whole.
"This is obscene to me — that union dues are being spent to fight each other," said Earnest Lemond, a Chicago native who works for an airline catering company in Detroit. "We need to take care of the members."
Lemond is a member of UNITE HERE, formed in 2004 with the merger of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union.
The union, which represents about 400,000 workers, opens its annual convention in Chicago on Monday.
Quarrels between its leaders led to last month's departure of General President Bruce Raynor, who joined Workers United, an affiliate of the 2-million-member Service Employees International Union. The affiliate has also signed up thousands of former UNITE HERE members.
Today's meeting, organized by Workers United, was a call to end the dispute between the SEIU affiliate and UNITE HERE through binding arbitration.
Earlier this month, Raynor, Workers United President Edgar Romney and SEIU President Andy Stern sent UNITE HERE President John Wilhelm an open letter asking that he submit to mediation to settle their differences.
Wilhelm has refused such overtures, arguing that he would not put the future of his union at the hands of an arbitrator.
UNITE HERE spokeswoman Pilar Weiss says it is disengenuous for Workers United to try to make amends at this point.
"SEIU should have thought of this when they began trying to raid our union and promote secession in our union," Weiss said.
Workers at today's meeting said they are frustrated with the lack of compromise between their leaders. They echoed concerns from leaders of other unions, who have worried that the dispute could undermine the labor movement's unity as federal legislators debate issues such as the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to organize for collective bargaining.
"If they do the right thing, we can help build a better world for working families," said Margarito Diaz, a laundry worker in Chicago and member of Workers United. "If they don't support arbitration and ending this fight, they are hurting all of us."
Diaz described how organizers with UNITE HERE Local 1, which represents about 15,000 workers in Chicago and northwest Indiana, tried to recruit laundry workers around Chicago who were already members of Workers United. He also said UNITE HERE deceived the workers by inflating their salaries in an effort to make their union seem like a more effective negotiator.
Annemarie Strassel, spokeswoman for the Local 1, categorically denied that the union tries to recruit Workers United members. She characterized the allegations as "hostile," and argued that Workers United, not UNITE HERE, is guilty of trying to siphon union membership.
"Our union is being raided," Strassel said.
Ramon Leos, a UNITE HERE member and banquet server from Los Angeles, accused his union of using strike funds, meant to help striking workers who lose pay from employers, to battle Workers United.
He questioned how union organizers could effectively bargain with employers "if you don't have leverage to negotiate" with well-funded strikes.
Weiss denied that UNITE HERE has used strike pay for anything related to the dispute with Workers United.
Asked why he and other upset members have not left UNITE HERE and joined Workers United instead, Leos responded, "We're thinking about it now."
Leos and Lemond, the two UNITE HERE members in the meeting, said organizers with Workers United invited them to attend, but at their own cost.
Lemond said he was not taking sides by being there, and that he only wants a resolution to the fight between his union and Workers United.
"I'm pro-worker," he said. "There's enough blame to go around."
Staff Writer Adrian G. Uribarri can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 12, or adrian at chitowndailynews dot org.