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Some Organizers Protest Their Union’s Tactics

by Steven Greenhouse Friday, Nov. 20, 2009 at 3:34 PM

Ms. Rivera said her supervisors at Unite Here, the hotel and restaurant workers’ union, repeatedly pressed her to reveal highly personal information, getting her to divulge that her father had sexually abused her.

November 19, 2009

Some Organizers Protest Their Union’s Tactics

By STEVEN GREENHOUSE

New York Times

After six years working in the laundry of a Miami hotel, Julia Rivera was thrilled when her union tapped her to become a full-time union organizer.

But her excitement soon turned to outrage.

Ms. Rivera said her supervisors at Unite Here, the hotel and restaurant workers’ union, repeatedly pressed her to reveal highly personal information, getting her to divulge that her father had sexually abused her.

Later, she said, her supervisors ordered her to recount her tale of abuse again and again to workers they were trying to unionize at Tampa International Airport, convinced that Ms. Rivera’s story would move them, making them more likely to join the union.

“I was scared not to do what they said,” said Ms. Rivera, adding that she resented being pressured to disclose intimate information and then speak about it in public. “To me, it was sick. It was horrible.”

Ms. Rivera and other current and former Unite Here organizers are speaking out against what they say is a longstanding practice in which Unite Here officials pressured subordinates to disclose sensitive personal information — for example, that their mother was an alcoholic or that they were fighting with their spouse.

More than a dozen organizers said in interviews that they had often been pressured to detail such personal anguish — sometimes under the threat of dismissal from their union positions — and that their supervisors later used the information to press them to comply with their orders.

“It’s extremely cultlike and extremely manipulative,” said Amelia Frank-Vitale, a Yale graduate and former hotel union organizer who said these practices drove her to see a therapist.

Several organizers grew incensed when they discovered that details of their history had been put into the union’s database so that supervisors could use that information to manipulate them.

“This information is extremely personal,” said Matthew Edwards, an organizer who had disclosed that he was from a broken home and was overweight when young. “It is catalogued and shared throughout the whole organizing department.”

Labor professors, as well as union leaders and members, said such practices were not at all typical of organized labor.

John W. Wilhelm, Unite Here’s president, condemned the tactics. “I have zero tolerance for inappropriate intrusions into people’s private and personal lives,” he said. “I have not personally used these techniques, and I have taken a very strong stand against them.”

Mr. Wilhelm said the practice, known as pink sheeting after the color of the paper that private details were recorded on, was rare and had never been widespread at Unite Here.

He said the organized campaign to condemn it is largely part of a propaganda effort by the Service Employees International Union.

Early this year, Unite Here split apart, with one faction merging with the service employees union, which Mr. Wilhelm accused of raiding his union and trying to take it over.

But several Unite Here organizers described high-pressure meetings where they were brought to tears as supervisors pushed them, sometimes in front of a dozen colleagues, to divulge personal information in what several organizers said was an effort to break their will and ensure their obedience.

Some said supervisors, soon after hiring them, had tricked them by disclosing a few personal details over lunch and then pressing them to reciprocate with their own secrets.

Mr. Edwards and five other organizers responsible for arranging boycotts against nonunion hotels resigned from Unite Here last summer to protest pink sheeting.

“My supervisor raised that my dad is dead and so and so, don’t you feel abandoned,” said Greg Hoffman, whose late father was a labor relations professor at Michigan State University. “It’s this weird psychoanalysis. A lot of times I thought, ‘What does this have to do with my job?’ ”

Mr. Wilhelm said that he was cracking down on what pink sheeting existed. Unite Here leaders issued new guidelines in early 2008 and again in early 2009, in theory banning the practice. But several organizers detailed numerous instances of pink sheeting in recent months despite that supposed ban.

These organizers said the question sheets were no longer pink, had been renamed “motivation sheets” and contained such questions as, “What risks or difficulties has your target undergone in her/his personal life?”

Among the information on several pink sheets was:

“Her childhood was a mess. Her mother was extremely passive aggressive. She would stop speaking to her children sometimes.”

“Has social anxiety disorder. She should have been on medication or in therapy but her parents refused.”

“Mom was not around growing up. She’s heard from her twice. Once to ask for money.”

Several organizers said supervisors wanted this information so organizers could inspire prospective union members by telling them things like, “I suffered sexual abuse or I was an alcoholic, and thanks to the union, I overcame it.”

Numerous organizers said their supervisors, having pink-sheeted them, had in turn ordered them to elicit highly personal information from workers they were seeking to unionize.

Maria, a former hotel housekeeper and former organizer in Los Angeles, said workers she had sought to unionize often grew cold toward the union because of the personal questions organizers asked them.

She said her supervisors got her to reveal that her stepfather had abused her physically and psychologically. She insisted on not disclosing her last name because of this personal information.

“I wanted to change conditions at my workplace,” Maria said. “I was ready to fight for respect for workers. But this entire thing felt like a total lack of respect. I quit the union because I felt this was psychological abuse.”

In October, four hotel union organizers — Sean Abbott-Klafter, Crystal Stermer, Lohl Berning and Tenaya Lafore — wrote an open letter to the labor movement decrying pink sheeting as an effort to obtain “emotionally vulnerable information.”

“This practice is a cynical and manipulative system of control,” they wrote. “It is a tactic designed to keep those involved in the union’s work from straying from the directives of the union leadership.”

Unite Here is one of the nation’s most aggressive organizing unions and is particularly strong in Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York.

Unite Here was formed in 2004, when Unite, the apparel workers union, merged with Here, the hotel employees and restaurant employees union, which Mr. Wilhelm once headed and where several organizers say pink-sheeting originated. Last January, Bruce Raynor, once the apparel workers’ president, led more than 100,000 workers to break away, form a new union and merge with the service employees.

Three of the former organizers of hotel boycotts — Mr. Edwards, Mr. Hoffman and Arlen Jones — said they were protesting pink sheeting because they found it repugnant, not because they wanted to help the service employees battle Mr. Wilhelm.

Lorena Lopez, a Unite Here lead organizer in Los Angeles who began working for the hotel employees union a decade ago, said that she never witnessed any pink sheeting and that any criticisms were “a pathetic attempt by S.E.I.U. to discredit our union.”

She said the personal stories that supervisors elicited were typically about workers not being able to afford health insurance or food for their families.

Several organizers likened pink sheeting to a practice that Cesar Chavez, former president of the United Farm Workers, used when he embraced a mind-control practice developed by Synanon, a drug rehabilitation center founded in Santa Monica, Calif. Union staff members were systematically subjected to intense, prolonged verbal abuse in an effort to break them down and assure loyalty.

Mr. Wilhelm’s supporters often seek to discredit critics of pink sheeting as tools of the service employees, noting that Ms. Frank-Vitale worked for that union after quitting the hotel workers union, and that Ms. Rivera now works for Workers United, the union that split from Unite Here.

Ms. Frank-Vitale, now a graduate student at American University, says she is still haunted by memories of pink sheeting.

“One night my supervisor pushed me and pushed me, and I started talking about being an overweight woman in America, what that was like in high school, that it was very difficult for me,” she said. “I felt kind of violated.”

She said she was not protesting pink sheeting to help a particular side in a partisan battle. “I don’t care if this union splits or stays together,” she said. “I care about stopping this creepy, cultlike form of organizing.”

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