‘Labour history was made in Chicago last July with a merger that has paid real dividends for American workers’, says the UNITE HERE trade union in a statement to mark the first anniversary of the merger.
‘On July 8, 2004, the garment, textile and laundry workers union UNITE merged with the Hotel Employers and Restaurant Employees, and formed UNITE HERE, a union of nearly half a million workers with a commitment to action and growth.
Since that merger, the new union has won a series of important victories including strikes and lockouts in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Atlantic City; unprecedented contracts in the laundry and hotel industries; and corporate agreements guaranteeing workers a fair and neutral process by which to decide whether or not to join a union.
By the end of 2005, UNITE HERE will have organised more new workers in one year than the two unions had combined in any past years.
‘I am amazed by the incredible work our union has done in just one year. The benefits of the merger and the gains for workers are beyond what any of us had hoped,’ says Bruce Raynor, General President of UNITE HERE.
‘That is part of why I can’t stand idly by while other labour leaders say we can’t win in this political climate. Our union has made the changes we want to see, and it’s working.’
‘Our union has known for years that we have to “Change to Win,” ’ explains John W Wilhelm, President/Hospitality Industries. ‘We know because we changed, and now we are winning.’
The union goes on to list highlights from UNITE HERE’s first year:
• Hotels: Using a new national strategy, the union has successfully begun a dialogue with the industry at the highest levels.
Industry publications are already forecasting a turbulent year after tracking the successes the union has had securing strong contracts for hotel workers, and noting that more than 400 top hotels in the US and Canada will have contract expirations in 2006.
By setting a strike deadline just days before the inauguration festivities were set to begin, workers in Washington DC negotiated the strongest contract in the history of their union.
After only two days of a strike, workers in Los Angeles secured a contract with an expiration date in 2006, lining the city up with other major hotel contracts.
Workers in San Francisco still do not have a contract, but did win a six-week lockout after which the company brought workers back in without any conditions beyond a cooling off period of 60 days.
‘The union is also signing up new members in the hotel industry, including at the Houston Hilton in the notoriously anti-union state of Texas.
• Laundry: UNITE HERE recently signed an agreement with the nation’s largest supplier of linens to the healthcare industry, Angelica Textile Services, that will give more than 1,000 additional health care laundry workers the opportunity to achieve the benefits of a union contract.
The fast growing company has also agreed to a fair and neutral process for organising workers in any plant it acquires for the next 10 years.
By arriving at an agreement with Angelica, UNITE HERE is setting standards for the entire industry. More than two-thirds of the workers in the health care laundry industry will soon be organised into unions.
The union continues to sign up more new members in the laundry industry each month, in cities as diverse as Rochester, NY, Richmond VA, and Phoenix, AZ.
And contracts for these largely immigrant, low-income workers include unprecedented gains in benefits and standards that even white collar workers no longer demand, such as defined benefit pensions, low cost health care, and strong health and safety and seniority language.
l Gaming: The newly merged UNITE HERE held two rallies in Atlantic City during the course of the casino strike there, the second breaking the record of the first as the biggest labour action ever in that city.
Thousands of supporters from throughout the eastern US came to rally in support of the 10,000 gaming workers on strike there. After one month, workers eventually won the strongest contract in the history of the gaming industry nationwide.
Two of the newest and biggest casinos in Las Vegas were recently organised as well: the Wynn Casino and the Aladdin. The benefits of the merger were apparent in both cities.
The scale of the mobilisation in Atlantic City would not have been possible by either of the pre-merged unions.
And in the long-standing dispute over union recognition with Aladdin management, the union was able to draw on financial and other relationships from the former UNITE to reach an agreement.
l Apparel/textile: In addition to leading the fight against CAFTA and other trade policies that hurt manufacturing in America, UNITE HERE is still winning strong contracts and organising new workers in the apparel and textile industries.
Government contracts that pay for American made military apparel should not support sweatshop jobs, and by organising workers in this industry, we can assure that tax dollars pay for good, family sustaining jobs.
Workers in Florida who make body armour for soldiers and police, recently signed a first contract and a campaign at American Power Source, makers of military uniforms in Mississippi, kicked off just last month and already has the support of the majority of workers.
• Distribution/retail: Through a contract signed with Swedish retail giant H&M, UNITE HERE stemmed the growing use of temporary workers in their distribution centres and secured more full time jobs and significant improvements in wages and benefits for 250 distribution centre workers in New Jersey and Connecticut.
A total of about 2,000 distribution centre and retail workers have joined the union from cities as diverse as Buffalo, New York and Houston, Texas.
• Politics: In addition to supporting national and state races with other political and labour partners, UNITE HERE mobilised an unprecedented number of Latino voters for the Los Angeles mayoral race and helped elect Antonio Villaraigosa, the city’s first Latino mayor in generations.
Worker mobilisation was also key in the defeat of two anti-worker ballot initiatives in California last fall.
• Infrastructure: Since the merger, more than 40 locals and affiliates have merged in the fastest consolidation of two union’s power ever seen in the movement. By merging locals and affiliates and creating a more efficient organisation, the union is freeing even more of its resources for organising and other growth strategies. The wealth of human and other resources both unions possessed are being reorganised and restructured to facilitate new programs and campaigns that will be more than the sum of their parts.
• Collaboration: As a founding member of the Change to Win Coalition, UNITE HERE has joined with other unions to create a new organisation that will promote real cooperation and creative organising strategies. However, these strategies and collaborations are already part of the work that UNITE HERE has undertaken since merging last year.
In addition to working with the Coalition, UNITE HERE has been partnering with the Teamsters on the Cintas campaign and with SEIU in an effort to organise thousands of workers in the multi-service industry.’