To the outside world, hearing that unions are fighting amongst themselves does not seem like anything new. Sadly, that’s what a lot of people expect from the labor movement. But the civil war between SEIU and UNITE HERE was a particularly painful internal dispute. It created a rift between two of the most dynamic organizations in organized labor and limited the ability of the entire movement to address critical challenges facing the American economy over the past year and a half.
America is a country of immigrants. The unions at the core of the recent dispute, the former UNITE and HERE, are each deeply rooted in the dreams of immigrant workers to create better lives for themselves, their co-workers, and their families. Organized labor in the United States has always grown with the newest wave of immigrants to our country. Moreover, the labor movement has been the most important institution, bar none, in allowing those who are newly coming to America to enter into the economic mainstream of their communities. It is central to our mission, and the continuing importance of this goal far surpasses any internal disagreements we may have within organized labor. Even while the combination of the two organizations, UNITE and HERE, did not last, the labor movement as a whole should reaffirm the broader principles that inspired the merger.
The immigrants who organized the textile and apparel sector a century ago—immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe, like my grandparents—believed that if working people were going to have strong institutions that could go toe-to-toe with employers, they needed solid infrastructure. So they founded trade unions, and they fashioned institutions like the Amalgamated Bank—which today is a significant asset that was a point of contention in labor’s family feud. We must remember that these institutions are not prizes to be divvied up. They are embodiments of the hard work and foresight of previous generations, who left them so that their children and future generations of working immigrants could create better lives for themselves.
Family feuds are painful. They rip at the very fabric of an institution. Likewise, internal disputes within the labor movement can be deeply harmful, eroding the foundations of organizations that we have worked so hard to build. Like in a family, each side in a dispute believes that it is right. However, within the family, the imperative to resolve a dispute and to mend wounds often outweighs the particulars of any given disagreement. The damage an internal fight can cause is so profound that sometimes being right is not enough.
For this reason, the announcement of a settlement between SEIU and UNITE HERE represents an important moment for the entire labor movement. Going forward, we need to put our unifying mission ahead of any disagreements that divide us.
Today, we face a sea of opponents ready to defame and defeat all unions. The only side that wins when we don’t work hard to put our differences behind us is the side of organized money. When they see us divided, the big corporations and the Glenn Becks of the world laugh all the way to the bank. Every family has its internal disputes. But the labor movement doesn’t have the luxury of fighting against itself any longer
About This Author: Amy B. Dean served as President of the South Bay AFL-CIO in Silicon Valley from 1992-2003 and chaired AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s committee on the future direction of labor strategy at the regional level. She is co-author, with David B. Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.