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Latest News - August 2010

August 07, 2010
Money at core of truce between unions
By: Joe Napsha

A battle between two unions appears to have been settled over money more than membership gains, but it took the resignation of a controversial labor leader before the two factions reached a truce, labor experts say.

The two unions -- Service Employees International Union and Unite Here -- last week ended a two-year battle by agreeing that hotel, restaurant and stadium workers will be the domain of Unite Here, and the 2.2-million member SEIU will get control of the Amalgamated Bank of New York, owned by Unite Here.

"The current fight was over the assets (of the bank). It's very likely there was a quid pro quo" to reaching a settlement -- the bank in exchange for members, said John Russo, co-director of Youngstown State University's Center for Working Class Studies.

The Amalgamated Bank of New York, founded in 1923 by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, was known as the Labor Bank for helping immigrant workers in New York's textile and garment industries, Russo said. The bank has $4.5 billion in assets and manages $11.8 billion for 50 institutional clients.

"The bank was the big prize all along. The SEIU was financially strapped, spending tens of millions on fighting. Most of the members are going to stick with Unite Here," said James Sherk, a senior policy analyst in labor economics for The Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington.

Most of the workers that left Unite Here when a faction of that union split in April 2009 to form Workers United -- a unit of the SEIU -- will return to the Unite Here fold, boosting membership to about 200,000.

The split ultimately led Unite Here to leave the Change to Win labor federation in September. The SEIU, Unite Here and five other national unions broke away from the AFL-CIO labor federation in 2005 to form the Change to Win group because of disagreements over the direction of the nation's labor movement.

The April resignation of SEIU President Andrew Stern, who was known for political activism and battling with other labor unions, likely paved the way for the settlement, Russo said. Stern's successor, Mary Kay Henry, talked of ending the union battle, as well as other union fights in California over health care workers.

"The new leadership at SEIU does not have a personal stake in this the way Stern did, and wanted to resolve this as soon as possible for the sake of SEIU and the rest of the labor movement," said Paul F. Clark, head of the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Penn State.

A harsher assessment came from Justin Wilson, a manager at the Center for Union Facts, a Washington-based union watchdog group.

"It's no surprise that it took Stern's resignation before they ended this war with Unite Here. ... The members were merely pawns in a larger game," Wilson said.

Locally, about 1,600 workers in Pittsburgh's major hotels, the new Consol Energy Center and the David L. Lawrence Convention Center are affected by the settlement.

The SEIU's Workers United relinquishes its claim to workers in the hotels and gaming industries, including any future hotels that are built in Pittsburgh, said Ivana Krajcinovic, a staff representative for Unite Here Local 57 in Pittsburgh. The hotel workers are in the process of "transitioning" to Unite Here Local 57, she said.

In the case of food service workers, Krajcinovic said, the two unions agreed in recent meetings in Philadelphia to submit their differences to arbitration, or a representation election. That includes about 600 workers at the soon-to-be opened Consol Energy Center and about 100 at the convention center, she said.

Samuel Williamson, a staff representative for SEIU's Workers United, declined to comment, referring questions to the union's national office.

As to how the deal was brokered on a national level over financial matters, Krajcinovic said that settling on an arrangement over money (rather than members) is a lot cleaner," even though it meant relinquishing an important asset in the Amalgamated Bank.

At times, the fight got ugly this past year, with the unions protesting each other. Both unions had engaged in filing unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board in Pittsburgh, claiming employers were failing to recognize their union as the legitimate bargaining agent.

The unions have told the labor relations board in Pittsburgh they plan to withdraw those charges, said Robert Chester, regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Pittsburgh. The board still is waiting to get an official statement from the unions.



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