Unite Here (sometimes styled UNITE HERE or Unite HERE) is a major labor union principally organizing employees in the hotel, restaurant, and gaming industries. Unite Here was formed in 2004 from a merger between the Hotel Employees-Restaurant Employees (HERE) union and Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and has become notable for aggressive “corporate campaign” organizing tactics. Since 2009, the union has been a member of the AFL-CIO labor federation; as of 2017, it was the fastest-growing AFL-CIO union.
Unite Here local unions are major players in state and local politics; perhaps most notably, Culinary Local 226, a Las Vegas casino workers’ union, is an integral cog in the Nevada Democratic political machine associated with former U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada). Unite Here unions have also advocated for strict restrictions on AirBnB and similar short-term room rentals, demanded “card check” public organizing (future Unite Here international president Bruce Raynor stated in 2003, “There’s no reason to subject the workers to an election”), and pushed for minimum wage policies with loopholes allowing union contracts to under-cut the wages paid to non-union employees.
Unite Here was split in 2009 when local unions associated with the prior UNITE and loyal to Raynor left the merged Unite Here to form Workers United, a division of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). In the 2009 “divorce,” Workers United SEIU also took control of Amalgamated Bank, a labor-union-owned financial institution founded by a predecessor union to UNITE.
Unite Here was formed from a merger of two predecessor unions: the Hotel Employees-Restaurant Employees (HERE) union and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), itself the result of the merger of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA). Both predecessor unions suffered from endemic corruption: Widespread mob infiltration of the UNITE unions in New York’s Garment District was alleged, and the 1986 President’s Commission on Organized Crime identified HERE alongside the Teamsters, Laborers International Union, and International Longshoremen’s Association as national unions controlled by organized crime.
Hotel Employees-Restaurant Employees Union (HERE)
HERE was formed in 1891 as the Waiters and Bartenders International Union, a craft union focusing on front-of-house restaurant employees. The union grew until the enactment of Prohibition in the 1920s; labor historians have suggested that HERE’s closeness with organized crime was originally forged during the Prohibition period.
By the mid-1970s, Edward Hanley had risen to lead the national HERE union. Hanley was notorious for a high salary and substantial perks: His annual pension after retirement exceeded his presidential salary, and he reportedly made use of a $2.5 million private jet. Hanley was also accused of close ties with organized crime; in testimony to the U.S. Senate, an FBI informant alleged that Hanley was one of two national union presidents “hand-picked” by Chicago mob boss Tony “Big Tuna” Accardo. Hanley denied the allegations; in 1998, he resigned from union office amid allegations by a federal overseer that he had received improper financial benefits.
Hanley was succeeded by John W. Wilhelm, a longtime union organizer. Wilhelm, a one-time Students for a Democratic Society activist, made his name in HERE by leading an organizing campaign among clerical employees of Yale University.
Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees
The Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees was formed in 1995 as a result of a merger between the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (ACWA). ACWA, especially under its Depression-era leader Sidney Hillman, was a major player in Democratic politics; President Franklin Roosevelt reportedly told his 1944 running-mate search team to “clear it with Sidney.”
UNITE basked in a legacy of labor union history; the ILGWU rose to prominence after the Triangle Shirtwaist factory disaster, a core event leading to the rise of labor unions in the United States. However, by the 1990s UNITE locals in New York’s Garment District were suspected of corruption, allegedly tacitly allowing sweatshop conditions to exist in its union shops. The union exploited a provision of the 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act to extract kickbacks from clothing manufacturers engaged in offshoring; members were not compensated, with funds going into the union coffers.
UNITE’s most important asset was the Amalgamated Bank of New York, the nation’s only union-controlled financial institution. In 2004, when UNITE and HERE merged, Amalgamated had $3.6 billion in assets.
By the early 2000s, HERE was in financial distress, with its revenues and membership rolls hurt by the decline in tourism following the attacks of September 11, 2001. HERE, led by career union organizer and onetime Students for a Democratic Society activist John Wilhelm, solicited support for a contract campaign at Yale University from other labor unions; support arrived from UNITE, led by “child of the ’60s left” Bruce Raynor, which provided financial assistance and union activists.
In parallel, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) formed the New Unity Partnership (NUP), a caucus within the AFL-CIO that would evolve into the future Change to Win union federation. Both UNITE and HERE aligned with the NUP. In 2005, Unite Here exited the AFL-CIO, joining the SEIU-led Change to Win federation.
In 2004, UNITE and HERE announced that the unions would merge and form Unite Here. Supporters of the merger focused on the apparent synergies between the two organizations: UNITE had money and institutional strength (especially the Amalgamated Bank) but its principal industry, domestic garment manufacturing, was in decline; HERE served a growing and largely non-union industry with vast targets for organization but lacked the resources to exploit them.
Skeptics within the labor movement expressed concern that the merger seemed to have been organized by top brass (possibly including Raynor and Wilhelm themselves) without input from rank-and-file membership. Additional concerns emerged over the unions’ differing approaches to organizing campaigns—while both followed the public “card-check” recognition strategy, UNITE preferred to focus on professional organization while HERE would organize committees of militant union-supporting workers—and the differences between the unions’ core garment manufacturing and hotel industries.
After the merger, Raynor became general president of Unite Here and Wilhelm became president of the hospitality division (essentially the former HERE). On major union policies, Raynor and Wilhelm acted as “co-presidents.”
Failure of the Merger
Supporters of the merger had hoped that the combined resources of UNITE and organizing potential of HERE would make Unite Here, Change to Win, and the entire labor union movement stronger. However, the inherent conflicts between the predecessor unions, relatively unsuccessful organizing efforts, and a looming 2009 power battle for control of the union led Unite Here into disarray.
When the merger was agreed, observers assumed that Wilhelm would stand aside at the conclusion of the first five-year period and allow the younger Raynor to lead Unite Here alone. However, by late 2008 and early 2009, disputes between the prior-UNITE and prior-HERE factions over organizing strategies led Wilhelm to agree to challenge Raynor; the larger membership and voting power of HERE locals loyal to Wilhelm assured victory.
Raynor responded by attempting to dissolve the union of which he was still nominally president. With Raynor’s support, then-Service Employees International Union (SEIU) international president Andy Stern offered to incorporate Unite Here into the SEIU; HERE-side activists saw Stern’s offer as a threat that SEIU would begin organizing in casinos and hotels previously left to Unite Here. (In labor parlance, a union organizing on another union’s turf is known as “raiding.”)
Raynor and his allies also retained Steve Rosenthal, a Stern ally, former AFL-CIO political director, and major labor union political consultant, and his firm, The Organizing Group, to run a public relations campaign targeting Wilhelm and his allies on the Unite Here board. Regional bodies of the former UNITE voted to secede from Unite Here and agreed to form a new union, Workers United, which would affiliate with SEIU. Raynor himself resigned from Unite Here in May, 2009; he would become president of Workers United.
Unite Here’s Wilhelm accused Raynor of having used Unite Here’s own funds to create his new rival union. A federal oversight board referred the matter for investigation to the Justice Department, though nothing further came of the matter.
During 2009, the Obama administration and its labor union allies were pushing the “Employee Free Choice Act” (EFCA), a piece of labor-relations legislation which would have ended secret ballot union organizing elections and allowed federal officials to impose first union contracts through “binding arbitration.” Unite Here, which frequently uses the “corporate campaign” and “card check” organizing tactics which EFCA would have strengthened, strongly supported the legislation.
Unite Here’s advocacy for the legislation was hampered by the infighting that would lead to the Workers United split. HERE supporters circulated materials encouraging members not to support (the UNITE-faction controlled) Unite Here’s pro-EFCA advocacy campaign. The UNITE faction accused HERE-side activists of “actively discouraging workers from supporting” union-backed card-check legislation.
Union critics noted irony in the fact that Wilhelm and Unite Here opposed the demand by Stern, Raynor, and Workers United to divide Unite Here’s assets by binding arbitration, since EFCA would establish binding arbitration in first-contract impasses. Observers noted that the battle between SEIU and Unite Here may have hurt efforts to pass the card-check legislation, a priority of left-wing labor interests in the first Congress under the Obama administration.
After Raynor’s locals left Unite Here to form Workers United, the two factions descended into a battle over the financial assets of the joint union—many of which, most prominently Amalgamated Bank of New York, came from the UNITE/Workers United side of the merger. In 2010, the disputes were settled by negotiation: Workers United, SEIU would control Amalgamated Bank, while Unite Here would keep its name, receive $75 million in contested assets, and continue to control the Manhattan headquarters building it inherited from UNITE.
Major Local Unions
Culinary Local 226
Culinary Local 226, which organizes and represents workers at Las Vegas casinos, is the largest, richest, and most powerful local union of Unite Here. Both current Unite Here president Donald “D.” Taylor and his immediate predecessor John W. Wilhelm have histories at the local; Taylor was the union’s president before moving to the national union in 2012, and Wilhelm was an organizer and strategist for Culinary in the 1980s and 1990s.
Culinary is a key cog in the Nevada state-level progressive movement and the political machine associated with former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid. Democratic victories in the state in 2012, 2016, and 2018 were credited to the Culinary-based political operation, which in 2018 provided 300 canvassers for the Senate campaign of then-U.S. Rep. Jacky Rosen (D). In the 2016 Democratic Presidential primaries, Reid reportedly rallied Culinary to turn out supporters of Hillary Clinton for the Nevada caucuses, despite the Senate Democratic Leader’s formal neutrality in the contest between the former Secretary of State and far-left U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
The relative success of Culinary and its partner union, Bartenders Local 165, has led liberal observers to suggest that Culinary’s organizing and political strategies should serve as a model for unions in right-to-work states. Culinary also led the national union’s opposition to the legalization of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in New York State alongside the New York Hotel Trades Council as a means to compel Station Casinos, a gaming company controlled by the same family that owns UFC, to agree to card-check unionization of its Las Vegas-area properties.
New York Hotel Trades Council/Unite Here Local 6
The New York Hotel Trades Council, a coalition of New York-area hotel unions closely associated with Unite Here Local 6, is a major player in New York City politics. The Hotel Trades Council, which has been described as one of the City’s four most-powerful labor unions, was the largest political spender in New York City’s often-determinative 2017 Democratic primary elections.
The union has lobbied aggressively for “special permits” for hotel construction which would require unionization. HTC-backed members of the City Council led legislative efforts to enact restrictions on short-term rentals service AirBnB which were demanded by HTC.
Unite Here Local 11
Unite Here Local 11 is the hotel workers’ union for the greater Los Angeles area, including Orange County, California. Left-wing magazine The Nation characterized Local 11 as one of Unite Here’s “most militant and successful locals.” It is perhaps best known for representing workers for Disneyland. The union has been criticized for disruptive demonstrations against hotels in Long Beach.
The union has supported wage mandates with exemptions for collectively bargained union contracts, which critics say can lead to unionized employment undercutting free employment. In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, Unite Here Local 11 president Tom Walsh acknowledged, “I wouldn’t even say it’s an incentive […] It just perhaps will cause [hotel owners] to be less resistant to unionization.”
Notable Issue Positions
Unite Here’s predecessor unions (UNITE and HERE) were among the first American labor unions to endorse a liberal expansionist immigration policy. Then-HERE president John W. Wilhelm chaired the AFL-CIO committee which passed a resolution which reversed the labor federation’s long-held position opposing unilateral amnesty to grant legal status to illegal immigrants and which called for for the repeal of the employer-enforcement provisions of the (AFL-CIO-supported) 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. UNITE, which claims a heritage of immigrant activism in the garment industry, led pro-amnesty demonstrations in the 1990s. Left-wing pro-union writer Harold Meyerson noted that UNITE, HERE, and SEIU led the effort to turn the unions in favor of expanded immigration, noting that “If there are new members to be had, that’s where they are”; namely, among immigrant workers.
After Unite Here followed the SEIU out of the AFL-CIO and into Change to Win, CtW remained staunchly pro-liberalization while the AFL-CIO reverted to a less expansionist stance. Unite Here and SEIU backed the 2007 immigration reform proposal supported by then-President George W. Bush which included a temporary guest-worker provision, which the AFL-CIO opposed. Observers noted that Unite Here and SEIU had substantial immigrant memberships and a “recruiting target” in prospectively legalized immigrants.
Unite Here continues to advocate for a liberal expansionist immigration policy. In 2017, the union led demonstrations in 40 cities to oppose the restrictionist immigration policies of the Trump administration and to encourage immigrant workers to join the union.
While Unite Here staunchly backed the election of President Barack Obama—it was the first major national labor union to endorse the then-Senator from Illinois in the 2008 cycle—and supported the enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (better known as Obamacare), after the law’s passage the union expressed opposition to provisions in the law which hurt union-affiliated health care plans. Unite Here president Donald “D.” Taylor said in a statement: “We want to hold the president to his word: If you like your health-care coverage, you can keep it, and that just hasn’t been the case.” Union officials opposed Obamacare rules which excluded Taft-Hartley health care trusts—unions’ often very comprehensive health care plans in which multiple employers whose employees are represented by the same union participate—from a package of government subsidies.
The union opposed Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare after the election of President Donald Trump, though Unite Here officials expressed hope that a repeal of the law’s so-called “Cadillac Tax” on high-expenditure healthcare plans could be agreed.
Like other labor unions, Unite Here has aggressively supported government mandates to consistently increase minimum wages and to institute so-called “living wage” mandates requiring hotels to pay higher-than-minimum wages.
The union has faced criticism for supporting laws with provisions exempting unionized workplaces from minimum wage hikes, with critics pointing out that such provisions aid unions at the expense of workers on whose behalf the union is supposed to work, often by creating a pressure point to force businesses to unionize. Unite Here Local 11 in California supported such a provision in a local ordinance applied to hotel workers; in a statement to the Los Angeles Times, Local 11 president Tom Walsh acknowledged, “I wouldn’t even say it’s an incentive […] It just perhaps will cause [hotel owners] to be less resistant to unionization.”
Unite Here is an aggressive user of the corporate campaign-card check model of union organizing. Under the model, rather than soliciting worker signatures to petition the National Labor Relations Board to hold a secret-ballot election on whether or not to establish a union, union organizers wage a public relations campaign against the employer’s brand to secure an agreement from the employer that the employer will negotiate with the union without a vote if employees publicly sign cards declaring intention to join the union. Former Unite Here president Bruce Raynor explained the process during a corporate campaign against Cintas from the early 2000s: “”There’s no reason to subject the workers to an election.”
Unite Here lobbied for the 2009 bill supported by the Obama administration which would have required employers to accept public card-checks in lieu of secret-ballot votes.
In numerous cities including Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and New York, Unite Here local unions have aggressively pressured for restrictions against short-term rental service AirBnB. The union has opposed expansion of AirBnB and other “home-sharing” services, since they compete with unionized hotels; in 2016, a union- and hotel-industry-funded study found that San Francisco AirBnB offerings took 500,000 room-nights from unionized hotels.
When AirBnB attempted to make a partnership with the SEIU allowing the SEIU to direct AirBnB users toward using SEIU-organized cleaning services, Unite Here strongly objected.
During the “divorce” negotiations between Workers United, SEIU and Unite Here, Workers United-faction supporters alleged that Unite Here leadership engaged in abusive labor practices with the union’s workers. The most notable practice was known as “pink sheeting,” described thusly:
Under the pink sheet regime, a lead UNITE HERE organizer would persuade workers and lower-level organizers to divulge personal information, often about past traumas. The lead organizer would frame this as a private disclosure, a gesture of trust and connection. But if the lower-level organizer ever second-guessed a command from on high, the lead organizer would use that personal information to pressure the subordinate into carrying out orders.
Organizers for Unite Here further alleged that their superiors “had in turn ordered them to elicit highly personal information from workers they were seeking to unionize.” Then-Unite Here president John Wilhelm vowed to end the practice of pink sheeting after it was reported on by the New York Times.
Sutter Health Libel Case
In 2003, Unite Here began an organizing campaign against industrial laundry firm Angelica, which served (among other clients) Sutter Health, a California hospital chain. The union, as part of its corporate campaign to damage Angelica’s brand, alleged that the laundry firm was dirty; Sutter Health refused to discuss the allegations with Unite Here. So, Unite Here retaliated by mailing postcards to prospective Sutter Health patients alleging that they would get sick from dirty linens at the hospitals.
Sutter Health responded with a libel lawsuit challenging Unite Here’s false claims that the linens were unclean. A lower-court jury found in favor of the hospital chain, ordering Unite Here to pay $17.3 million in damages. An appellate court would overturn the damages because the jury instructions were faulty; the parties would settle for $6 million in damages, with Unite Here apologizing for its false and defamatory postcards.
Ultimate Fighting Championship
As part of a long-running organizing campaign against Station Casinos, which shares an owner with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) combat sports promotion association, Unite Here led a number of efforts to hinder the ability of the UFC to put on events and otherwise do business. The most prominent such effort was an effort to maintain a New York State ban on professional mixed-martial-arts competitions; Unite Here and its affiliates battled from 2007 until UFC won legalization in 2016 to keep mixed-martial-arts fighting banned. The UFC’s campaign for legalization was aided by the fall from grace of a powerful Unite Here ally; New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), who would go to prison for corruption, ensured that UFC-legalization bills were kept off the Assembly floor.
In addition to lobbying to keep the New York ban in place, Unite Here and its local unions conducted other campaigns against UFC to target Station. In one case, the union aligned with the left-wing feminist group National Organization for Women (NOW) to try to deny a UFC competitor a license to fight in a Boston competition; the competitor received a license. Boston City Council President Stephen Murphy (D), who received campaign contributions from the Boston Unite Here local, also pressed for a law banning attendance at UFC events by minors.
While financial and other corruption within Unite Here is not as endemic as it had been in the past, scandals continue. In late 2017, a former secretary-treasurer of Unite Here Local 26 pleaded guilty to embezzling $170,000 in union funds.
Notable recipients of Unite Here funds in 2017 include the media consultancy BerlinRosen, Democratic political consultancy Hilltop Public Solutions, the Alliance to Fight the Forty coalition, the left-wing healthcare coalition America’s Agenda Health Care for All, the agitation group Center for Popular Democracy, Democratic-aligned PAC Emily’s List, the community organizing group Center for Community Change Action, the pro-immigration advocacy group Catholic Legal Immigration Network, left-wing media convention Netroots Nation, civil rights advocacy group Rainbow Push Coalition, and the New York-based socialist group Workers Defense League.
The national president of Unite Here is Donald “D” Taylor, formerly head of the Culinary Union until taking over the national union in 2012. Taylor has worked in Unite Here and its predecessor unions since 1979, when he joined a restaurant workers union; in 1981, Culinary hired Taylor.
Maria Elena Durazo, a general vice president of Unite Here and a prominent activist for expanded immigration, is as of 2018 also a California State Senator-elect.  In addition to starting a career in elective office, Durazo has served concurrently as Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee alongside her work as General Vice President of Unite Here.