Union Democracy Blog: New constitutions for UNITE HERE and for NUHW: Calling for democracy, Resisting authoritarianism

NewsSeptember 28, 2009

By now there is something to be learned from the bitter internecine battles that embroil Andy Stern of the SEIU, Sal Rosselli of the new National Union of Healthcare Workers, John Wilhelm of UNITE HERE, and Bruce Raynor of Workers United. It is becoming clearer that this is no mere struggle for power among ambitious union leaders. It involves a sharp challenge to Stern’s favored conception of a labor movement highly centralized at the top and regimented below. It marks an important break in the trend toward superbureaucratization of the American labor movement. That challenge is manifested in two new union constitutions: one, adopted in haste as the founding constitution of Rosselli’s NUHW; the other, the extensively revised constitution of Wilhelm’s UNITE HERE, just adopted at its convention in July.

In ‘normal’ times (if any times are normal), both constitutions would surely be of great interest to union activists and civil libertarians. However, in our times, they have a special significance. Not that they are flawless, certainly not. But in the context of the current internal labor battles, these new constitutions must be read not only for what they propose but for what they reject. They propose some steps toward democratization; they reject aspects of Stern’s bureaucratization.

The NUHW constitution:

Andy Stern and Sal Rosselli once cohabited in a happy family and jointly envisioned the SEIU as the vanguard of a newly invigorated labor movement. But that bond was broken when Rosselli criticized Stern for a top-down organizing strategy bordering on “company unionism.” After Stern trusteed the 140,00-member United Healthcare Workers-West and removed Rosselli, its president, along with all officers, they left the SEIU to form the new independent National Union of Healthcare Workers. Their new constitution bears all the marks of a hurry-up job, quickly put together to position their union for challenging the SEIU in collective bargaining elections. Nevertheless, at least two features stand out:

The NUHW constitution makes most big decisions of the president subject to review by the elected executive board. This provision, repeated on page after page, is a refreshing departure from practice in the SEIU, and from current trends in the labor movement, which turn top officers into near-dictators whose powers are limited only in theory by a rubber stamp international convention every four or five years.

The NUHW constitution rates highly the role of job stewards and provides for their election at all levels. Here, too, is a rejection of what Stern has introduced in the SEIU, where he would degrade the status of job stewards by replacing them with appointed clerks who deal with “job problems” over the telephone and at computer terminals.

The new UNITE HERE constitution:

The new UNITE HERE constitution is a thoroughgoing revision of the first constitution adopted at the union’s founding convention in 2004. The union was formed that year by a merger of UNITE, the needle trades union, with HERE, the hotel and restaurant workers union. By agreement, Bruce Raynor, former president of UNITE was elected president of the merged union; John Wilhelm, former president of HERE, became the president of its hospitality division.

Raynor’s union was weak in membership but it had lots of money (including a valuable stake in the Amalgamated Bank) accumulated in those bygone gloried days when clothing was still a respected part of the American economy. Wilhelm’s union, in contrast, had plenty of members in the expanding service trades, but it needed money. Right from the start, the marriage was an odd coupling of money and members. However, that anomaly could be overlooked as the new union joined Stern’s Change to Win in that momentary era of illusive enthusiasm. But it didn’t last. Like Rosselli and Stern who turned from allies into enemies; so did Raynor and Wilhelm. The embittering disputes in both cases have a lot in common. Some time around late 2007, the agreement between Raynor and Wilhelm fell apart. Raynor complained that Wilhelm was squandering time and tons of money in old-fashioned organizing campaigns that could not show massive results. Wilhelm replied that Raynor sought to centralize authoritarian powers in the hands of the president and that he proposed to organize quickly by offering employers sweetheart deals.

Raynor faced a vexing problem. Since he had invested mostly money in the joint UNITE HERE venture while Wilhelm came in mostly with members, Raynor was sure to be outvoted when the union’s convention assembled in 2009. He decided not to wait for the inevitable defeat. He resigned as UNITE HERE president, pulled his followers out, and formed a new union: Workers United. His new union promptly affiliated with Stern’s SEIU, where Raynor found a natural fit. Stern now bankrolls Raynor’s Workers United.

With Raynor gone, UNITE HERE reworked its constitution at its convention in July 2009. Unlike the NUHW constitution which was obviously hastily pieced together, the revised UNITE HERE constitution seems to be a product of careful thought. Commenting on the constitution, John Wilhelm, now UNITE HERE president, writes, “We have tried to learn from the recent struggles that have afflicted our union and to put in place a constitution that does its best not to rely upon the good will of the union’s elected officers.” They succeeded, not in hitting upon a perfect model of an unblemished union democracy, but in offering a democratized alternative to the superbureaucratization favored by Stern in the SEIU (and already imposed by the Carpenters union on its affiliated locals.)

The old UNITE HERE constitution, like many other union constitutions, centralized power in the hands of an authoritarian president. The new constitution leaves the president with enough authority to do the job, but it reassigns certain basic powers to a broad international executive committee. The executive committee itself is now open to minority and independent views; it is composed, not only of the top officers and others elected at-large by convention delegates, but also of vice presidents elected by separate representative assemblies of locals.

In the SEIU, Andy Stern would have the whole union leadership, top to bottom, local and international, elective and appointive, acting as one monolithic bloc, speaking to the membership with one united voice in favor of the official line. The new UNITE HERE constitution rejects that concept of militarized leadership. “Executive Committee members, ” it reads, “shall have the right to inform any affiliate of any decisions or discussions which occur at Executive Committee meetings.” At international conventions every committee “shall present any majority report(s) and/or dissenting report(s) prior to the opening business on the second day….” The section “Bill of Rights,” assures that “No officer, affiliate, or member may be discriminated or retaliated against, or in any way disadvantaged” for criticizing any union actions or policies.

Under the old constitution, a local could face trusteeship whenever it was justified “in the opinion of the Presidents” (before Raynor split off, the union had a dual presidency). On trusteeships, the new constitution begins, “Trusteeships may be imposed and the democratically elected affiliate officers removed only as a last resort.” Its text makes that declaration much more than an empty homiletic; it specifies conditions under which a trusteeship may not be imposed and it protects locals from arbitrary acts of union officials. Upon demand of a local facing trusteeship, the trial hearing will be conducted before an outside impartial arbitrator selected from a panel supplied by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. A local has the right to retain an attorney to represent it at any trusteeship hearing.

Article 23, which protects local autonomy, begins, “UNITE HERE pledges to respect local autonomy and to refrain from interfering with the affiliate’s representation of its members and organization of new members.” And that pledge is spelled out in extensive detail including a pledge not to “reduce or alter the jurisdiction of an affiliate without [its consent.]”

The right to trial before an impartial outside arbitrator goes beyond locals facing trusteeship. The new constitution provides, “At the option of an accused elected officer of UNITE HERE or any affiliate charged with a violation of this Constitution, the hearing shall be conducted before an impartial arbitrator….” There is more packed in this simple provision than meets the eye. It is the first time in more than fifty years that any major union has voluntarily ceded any measure of disciplinary control over its own affiliates to any agency outside the union’s own power structure.

In 1957, the UAW created its Public Review Board, a body of eminent public leaders, independent of the union officialdom, to act as an appeals body, a kind of supreme court, that offers recourse to members against decisions of the union’s own highest tribunals, including president and international executive board. Despite suggestions from the ACLU, no other major union has been willing to follow suit. If the UAW in 1957 swung the door widely to impartial outside recourse, UNITE HERE has opened it at least a crack. The UAW PRB is a continuing body available to members without cost and (apart from collective bargaining) is authorized to act on appeals on the whole range of internal union issues, including elections and free speech.

The UNITE HERE arbitrator-remedy seems limited to elected officers and affiliates who face charges and who must pay half the costs of arbitration. Compared to the UAW, UNITE HERE’s move may seem modest. But compared to the practice in all the other unions which permit no outside recourse, it is a giant step. It is an overdue recognition of the principle that in disciplinary matters unions must provide appeals recourse to an impartial body independent of the union establishment.

Up to now, the drive toward restructuring the unions has been led by Stern in the SEIU and McCarron in the Carpenters. Unions that have been conventionally bureaucratic or reasonably democratic have remained so, without evolving either way, except when forced to comply with the LMRDA. The main movement, up to now, has been that relentless drive toward an increasingly authoritarian labor movement in which the rights of members and independent minded leaders are drastically limited. But now, after battles provoked mostly by Stern and Raynor, there is a strong countermovement. That, apart from any specific verbiage, is the encouraging significance of the new NUHW and UNITE HERE constitutions.

Of course constitutions are only printed words on pieces of paper. It remains to be seen how they will be applied in the rough and tumble life on the job and in the union halls. But, as a first step, these are welcome constitutions.


Redistributing presidential powers:

A striking transformation in spirit effected by the new UNITE HERE constitution is revealed in the multiplicity of presidential powers now limited or shifted away from the President, in most instances to the broadly elected Executive Board or General Executive Board. A 124-page version of the new UNITE HERE constitution includes so many examples that we list only some here. The president loses unilateral decision powers over the following:

  • determining jurisdiction of locals,
  • approving local bylaws,
  • expenditures over $25,000,
  • issuing local charters,
  • trusteeing and supervising locals,
  • ruling on appeals,
  • appointing international convention committees,
  • setting convention agendas, calling special conventions,
  • appointing union committees,
  • decisions on auditing, bonding, investments,
  • distribution from strike funds.

Source: Benson’s Union Democracy Blog