A Message from Young UNITE HERE Activists

Below is a letter signed by over 30 other young UNITE HERE staff from across the country.  It is not only our analysis of UNITE HERE’s current situation with fellow union SEIU but also a representation of our vision for the labor movement.  It is being distributed primarily to student allies, but since it represents our sincere thoughts on a difficult issue, I thought all allies, students and non-students alike, should see it.

April 10,  2009

Dear student allies,

We are recent student activists now working at UNITE HERE, a union organizing and building power with food service, hotel, laundry and gaming workers across North America. It is a critical time for our movement – we know that workers will bear the brunt of the economic crisis unless we stand up, organize and fight.  We also know that students play an important role in the labor movement, and that we are stronger when we work together. 

We write to you today, though, because we are in a struggle over the kind of labor movement we are trying to build. At this critical moment in history, SEIU’s President, Andy Stern, is making a top-down attempt to take over our union. We understand that groups connected with this takeover attempt have begun to spread misinformation in the university community. We wanted to write you now to share our perspective.

We firmly believe in building a movement from the bottom up.  We believe our job is to bring workers together to fight for themselves, and that the role of the union is to build our members’ – and our own – capacity to realize hopes and dreams for the future.  We believe the union should be run democratically by its members, not by a small group of bureaucrats.  We believe UNITE HERE is committed to these same goals.

While UNITE HERE’s members are taking the difficult step of standing up for themselves at work, our student allies are standing up in solidarity with them.  On many campuses, students are playing a leading role in a campaign to build worker power in the hotel industry.  Meanwhile, our union is continuing to work with students to build a voice in decisions about the contracting of campus food services.  In all these efforts, we believe in transparency and working honestly in cooperation with our student allies. 

Stern and SEIU are jeopardizing the movement we are building together by interfering in UNITE HERE’s democratic processes. The merger of UNITE and HERE in 2004 successfully brought together workers but also brought together different opinions about the direction of the labor movement and the importance of building worker leadership.  Instead of permitting our members to collectively resolve the issues democratically at our union’s convention this summer, Stern has recruited a group of leaders, including UNITE HERE Co-President Bruce Raynor, who would rather dismantle UNITE HERE than face the prospect of losing power.

As part of the takeover campaign, Stern is sending SEIU staff into UNITE HERE workplaces to spread anti-union propaganda. His followers have sent misleading SEIU-purple mailers to UNITE HERE members.  Stern himself helped found the so-called "Workers United," a front group designed to break up our union. SEIU has even sent staff to disrupt our efforts to organize a hotel in Phoenix where we have spent months building relationships with workers.  Sadly, such raiding tactics are becoming a trend for Stern. And now, we hear they are spreading misinformation on campus. 

The same destructive opportunism evident in SEIU’s takeover attempt has been present in their recent student campaigns as well.  Last year, students sent an open letter to Andy Stern detailing their concern about how SEIU had treated student allies in campaigns at University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Stanford, Santa Clara University and University of California – Irvine.  The letter touched off a nerve and was highlighted in Inside Higher Education, while the UNC incident had already received attention in The Nation.  The dissatisfaction goes beyond the examples included in the letter.  In Philadelphia in 2006, after Andy Stern cut a deal with the security industry, SEIU suddenly pulled out of a campaign on which students and workers from University of Pennsylvania and Temple had played important roles.

Make no mistake: SEIU has done great work building power for workers in some places, and all SEIU members deserve our support and solidarity.  Many SEIU members and staff, as well as other unions, are as disgusted and disheartened by Andy Stern’s recent choices as we are. This attack on UNITE HERE comes at the very moment when the labor movement, student movements and all progressives should be united in the effort of turning our country in a new direction.

UNITE HERE is not perfect.  We don’t pretend that it is.  But our union – the one we believe in – is about people and their lives – not suits, board rooms, handshakes and assets. We joined UNITE HERE because of our desire to build a vibrant force for change with working people.  We fight because we believe that our union can build the power of working people to stand up to their bosses and elected leaders, and in doing so build a better society for us all. 

Usually our struggle is directed at corporations disrespecting workers, and we remain committed to working with you to build a stronger student-labor alliance on that front. But right now, we are fighting on another front as well. However unfortunate, this struggle is no less important for the future of our movement.  We are not in this fight because we are loyal to a particular union leader.  We are in it because of our vision for a bottom-up labor movement, which stands in stark contrast to the corporate-style takeover campaign Stern is running against our members.

For student allies who are leading struggles on their campuses, we thank you again for your solidarity and look forward to winning our mutual campaigns.  Meanwhile, we hope you all remain aware that SEIU and their Workers United front may bring their intrusive and ill-advised fight against UNITE HERE to your campus.  They may send misleading mailers, recruit you for internships that would mean fighting against us, or even try to organize members to leave our union.  If they do, we ask that you please stand with us in our struggle.  

In solidarity,

Allison Aguilar, Goucher College ‘08

Reyna Alfaro, University of Massachusetts-Amherst ‘08

Philip Arnone, University of Mary Washington ‘08

Jessica Austin, University of California-Berkeley ‘06

Mike Biskar, Georgetown University ‘06

Lauren Burke, Yale University ‘05

Liana Dalton, University of Wisconsin-Madison ‘06

Powell DeGange, University of California-Davis ‘07

Noah Dobin-Bernstein, Yale University ‘07

Matthew Edwards, University of California Santa Cruz ‘06

Judy Esber, UC Santa Cruz ‘08

Anne Fox, Wesleyan University ‘07

Mark Franciose, Purdue University ‘06

Nureen Ghuznavi, Brown University ‘08

Mike Hachey, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill ‘07

Nischit S. Hegde, Cornell University-ILR ‘06

Elizabeth Keegan, UCLA ‘08

Jessica Lawlor, Scripps College ’06

Mishy Leiblum, University of Massachusetts -Amherst ‘08

Marissa Levendis, Yale University ‘07

Nat Lippert, Haverford College ‘06

Elliott Mallen, University of Michigan ‘07

Ben Mantle, Cornell University ‘04

Jillian Marks, University of California-Berkeley ‘08

Riddhi Mehta, University of California-Irvine ‘07

Ian Mikusko, Kalamazoo College ‘05

Kate Moulding, Brown University ‘05

Alicia Ortiz, State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz ‘06

Evan Paster, Brandeis University ‘04

Jobert Poblete, University of California-Berkeley ’07

Caitlin Prendiville, New School University ‘07

Sarah Roberts, Swarthmore ‘08

Carrie Sallgren, University of Massachusetts -Amherst ‘05

Kyle Schafer, Northwestern University ‘07

Margaret Sharp, Yale University ‘08

Rachel Torres, University of California-Santa Barbara ’05

Jessica Turner, Vassar College ‘07

Maria Dolores Vivanco, University of San Francisco ‘06

Leave a comment