Laundry Workers Rally Amid Discord

At Oakland's Aramark plant, workers dues have been sucked into a dispute between unions.

On a Tuesday afternoon in Oakland, it was even hotter outside the
Chestnut Street Aramark industrial laundry than it was inside the
plant. Amid the din of passing trucks and BART trains, 150
orange-T-shirt clad laundry workers and supporters of their union,
Workers United, protested the lack of a contract with Aramark. Massing
in a parking lot, the multiracial crowd heard from the actor Danny
Glover and national union president Edgar Romney. As each speech was
translated into English, Spanish, and Cantonese, the mainly Asian and
Hispanic crowd yelled “Contract now!” Glover called their rally a
“community of love” that can be found in any struggle in which people
are fighting for wages and benefits that allow the raising of a healthy
and productive family. After an hour of speeches and chanting, the
crowd entered the offices of management and demanded that Aramark sign
a contract. But soon they exited unsuccessfully, chanting “We will be
back.”

Rallies for better wages and working conditions are normal and
healthy events in our community. But more was happening here. What was
unusual about this event was the presence of ten or so red-clad workers
and officers of a rival union, UniteHere. These counter-protestors
yelled during the speeches and mildly attempted to disrupt the rally,
periodically taunting the main crowd. A few birds were flipped back and
forth. The dispute had a little of the flavor of a boisterous crowd of
competing fans outside a 49ers-Raiders game.

The genesis of this counterprotest was the recent UniteHere divorce,
in which most of the UNITE leadership left the union and joined the
larger Service Employees International Union — taking on the name
Workers United. Like Workers United, the demonstrators from UniteHere
claimed that theirs was the proper union for the workers at the plant.
To the consternation of Workers United but with the approval of
UniteHere, Aramark is deducting dues from the paychecks of the workers
but holding the money in escrow.

In spite of UniteHere’s assertion that it is the proper union for
these workers, its leaders admit that the fight is confusing for
workers on both sides of the issue. That was clear in observing folks
at the rally.

Once again, the silent presence at the rally was the invisible
figure of Andy Stern, the national president of the SEIU. Much of this
fight is really about how one sees Stern. UniteHere supporters believe
he is a devilish figure and most of the leaders of major American
unions agree. The left wing of the union movement and its supporters in
the Bay Area are firmly opposed to him as well. However, Stern remains
one of the most powerful figures in labor and he leads the movement’s
biggest union. He is extraordinarily active and creative. Many believe,
like Edgar Romney said at the rally, that the SEIU is the “biggest and
baddest union in the country.” Workers who feel powerless often want a
union led by a “big and bad” leader, like support for Jimmy Hoffa years
ago in spite of his obvious personal flaws.

To make things even sadder, part of the dispute between Workers
United/SEIU and UniteHere is really about who has power over the labor
bank that was controlled by UNITE when it initially merged with HERE.
The $4.5 billion Amalgamated Bank of New York is the only fully
union-owned bank in the country. But contentious litigation is ongoing
over the bank and other assets. Confusing events such as the dispute at
this rally are likely to continue until the money fight is resolved.
Then this particular dispute is likely to end. It is almost paralyzing
to think that leaders on both sides would use these tactics in their
intra-union fight.

In his speech, Workers United president Edgar Romney turned at one
point to the members of UniteHere and implored them that the fight was
not among workers but between the workers and Aramark. “The day will
come when we will all be together,” he told the crowd. That is probably
true; however, given the way that union leadership is conducting its
cannibalistic battles, the real question is what role the workers will
have in that future. Given these disputes, will we see this solidarity
on this Earth or, as the old labor song used to say, “in the sweet bye
and bye?”

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