SEIU settles dispute with Unite Here, turns its attention to breakaway group

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has settled a long-running dispute with a rival union but continues to fight leaders of a breakaway labor group.

SEIU ended a two-year conflict on Monday with Unite Here, a hotel and garment worker union.

Under the agreement, Unite Here will have exclusive jurisdiction to organize in the hotel and gaming industries while there will be “a level playing field” for both SEIU and Unite Here in the food-service industry, according to Unite Here President John Wilheim.

Some financial assets and New York City real estate will go back to Unite Here, while ownership of the Amalgamated Bank will be transferred to Workers United, which is affiliated with SEIU.

New SEIU President Mary Kay Henry had pledged to end the dispute when she took over leadership of the union this year, and the decision marks a change from the leadership of former SEIU President Andy Stern, who had asked Unite Here members to break off and join the SEIU.

Henry said SEIU needs to concentrate its efforts on helping to improve the economy and assist those workers without union representation.

“We agree that we cannot be spending our time fighting one another over workers who are already represented when there are far too many people who want and need a voice on the job. Our resources and our attention must be put toward solutions for the crisis workers face right now,” Henry said in a statement Monday.

Unite Here President John Wilheim was more celebratory, having been able to fend off the challenge from the much bigger SEIU.

“As a result of the above jurisdictional and financial terms, Unite Here is in a strong position to represent our members effectively and to bring hope to non-union workers in our industries,” Wilheim said in a statement Monday. “We have won back our union.”

SEIU is still engaged in a separate internal labor battle with the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).

Based in California, NUHW was formed after its local leaders were ousted in January 2009 from SEIU after the national labor group placed the state affiliate under trusteeship.

SEIU accuses the new union of trying to win away members.

“NUHW is continuing their campaign to attack our union and threaten our members’ economic security. They are trying to raid our members in Kaiser and other units throughout California,” said Michelle Ringuette, an SEIU spokeswoman.

NUHW President Sal Rosselli disagreed, saying his union was not raiding SEIU members but rather it was “SEIU members trying to liberate themselves from SEIU. We are holding elections and tens of thousands of folks are voting for us.”

Rosselli argues that SEIU’s decision to reach a deal with Unite Here bolsters NUHW’s efforts to break away.

“We are just very happy that Unite Here beat back SEIU’s takeover of them. This is Mary Kay Henry giving up and reversing SEIU’s attempt of a hostile takeover and giving them back all their resources,” Rosselli said.

The sometimes nasty dispute with Unite Here served as a distraction to SEIU, which is one of the most politically aggressive unions in the country.

Sodexo, a huge food service company, used SEIU’s bad press to counter an SEIU organizing campaign. It also led to charges against SEIU that it was disrespecting worker rights at the same time it was lobbying heavily for the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation that would make union organizing much easier.

SEIU has won some battles against NUHW. In a court ruling earlier this year, SEIU was awarded $1.5 million after suing NUHW for using its resources to form the new group.

Ringuette said SEIU is still owed that award and that “there is no common ground with people who want to hurt our members.”

Rosselli said his union is appealing the court’s verdict to the federal level, which he estimates will take another year to run its course.

“For SEIU, our parent union, to take the decisionmaking authority away from workers and to put it in the hands of one person in Washington is not acceptable,” Rosselli said.