Union democracy, what's next for UNITE HERE

03/02/2009 06:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Many supporters in the progressive movement have been asking me "what's next for UNITE HERE?" Recently, I have learned that several UNITE HERE joint boards and locals representing more than 150,000 workers throughout the U.S. and Canada are planning on holding votes of rank and file leaders on the question of whether or not to disaffiliate with our international union (of which I am the General President). This is a historic and unprecedented action that indicates just how serious and deep the rift in our union is, but also how democratic trade unionism can be.

The 2004 merger of UNITE (formerly the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees) and HERE (formerly the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union) which created UNITE HERE, needs to come to an end. I still hope that we can forge a path to the future based on a set of private negotiations that works out what is best for all of our members. But clearly many of our local leaders have no faith that that is possible. While I am saddened by this course of events, I understand that they feel the need to take immediate action in the interest of their members. And I am proud that the worker leaders of our union will be participating in a massive act of democratic self- determination.

These meetings will be full of rank and file leaders, elected by other workers to represent them in their regional organizations. They are the closest thing to direct democracy we have in our union. It is too rare these days for so many workers to come together to decide on the future of their own unions, and we should honor that action regardless of the circumstances or consequences.

Workers are taking matters in to their own hands because a faction of former HERE leaders are determined to take over the entire union for their own benefit, with little regard for former UNITE members, their assets and the industries they work in. These workers want to end the merger to protect their history and their futures, but President Wilhelm and the former HERE leaders refuse to negotiate a settlement to end this merger. In fact, continuing their pattern of stifling dissent and discussion, they have filed suit to stop the votes. Without even knowing what these members would decide, before even allowing them to have their meetings and hold their votes, they have asked the courts to intervene and stop them.

I am not happy that our union is falling apart. And I hate that things have gotten so bad that members are coming together to possibly end their relationship with our union. But there is nothing I value more than workers' right to set the direction of their own union and their own lives. Therefore, I want these meetings and votes to happen. I recognize them as an opportunity to hear from our members, and as General President of UNITE HERE I plan to deal with the results, whatever they are. I think that my belief in our members and the democracy they participate in demands nothing less.

For more on the challenges UNITE HERE is facing please visit our new site, What's Next for UNITE HERE at