Sunday, May 31, 2009 | 2 a.m.
- John Wilhelm, president of Unite Here, talks about the turmoil in the modern labor movement.
- Wilhelm compares the visions behind the Culinary Union and SEIU.
- Wilhelm talks about SEIU failing in the private sector.
- Wilhelm on the importance of organizing in the private sector to "restore the middle-class dream."
In Today's Sun
- Unplugged: The SEIU chief on the labor movement and the card check (5-10-2009)
- Another union seeks Culinary's right to organize Strip workers (4-26-2009)
- Has labor visionary crossed the line? (4-16-2009)
- New coalition, backed by SEIU, leaves Culinary out (3-17-2009
- Culinary parent's battles threaten national union federation (3-14-2009)
- Internal conflict roils union (2-13-2009)
- Union power struggles escalates (2-11-2009)
John Wilhelm was dispatched to Las Vegas in 1987 to salvage a casino workers union rattled by devastating losses.
The Culinary Union was debilitated by a citywide strike three years earlier that sapped resources and morale. Six hotels persuaded employees to decertify the union, and four others illegally reneged on the Culinary contract. The union’s health care plan was tanking.
Wilhelm, a Yale graduate who cut his teeth organizing the university’s clerical and blue-collar workers, came to Las Vegas as the Western regional director for the Culinary parent, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union.
And in 1989, he moved the Strip’s labor relations into a new chapter.
He negotiated a landmark deal, allowing casino owner Steve Wynn to simplify job classifications in exchange for organizing rights at the Mirage — and at future Wynn casinos. The victory for labor: Rather than having to hold elections to organize — a process that allowed management the upper hand over organizers — workers were able to organize simply by signing union cards. Before long, operators up and down the Strip fell in line.
Almost overnight, the so-called card-check agreement — and a couple of strategic strikes — transformed the Culinary from a dying union into the largest, fastest-growing private-sector local in America.
It was one of the rare success stories in the modern labor movement, and it elevated Wilhelm into a small group of rising stars, including a charismatic organizer named Andy Stern, who had played a key role in the 1980s helping the Service Employees International Union organize scores of janitors in Los Angeles.
Both men rose to the top of their international unions and, in 2005, joined forces to lead a defection of six unions from the AFL-CIO, pledging to change the face of American labor.
Four short years later, Wilhelm and Stern can hardly stand to be in the same room.
Wilhelm accuses Stern and his service workers union of attempting a hostile takeover of Unite Here, a merger of the hotel employees union and the apparel workers union.
In March, at Stern’s invitation, Wilhelm’s co-president, Bruce Raynor, led a secession, and his former Unite allies took 150,000 members and formed a new SEIU affiliate, Workers United. Both sides are now engaged in a high-profile legal fight over union assets and organizing jurisdiction. Raynor resigned from Unite Here on Friday to take a leadership post with the SEIU affiliate.
We sat down with Wilhelm last week for a conversation at the Culinary’s offices, where he spent 11 years overseeing the local. In his view, the battle between Unite Here and SEIU will determine the future of the American labor movement, and he holds Stern responsible for dimming its legislative prospects.
The following is a condensed version of our conversation, edited for clarity and space.
Labor invested record resources in Barack Obama’s campaign. Now, for the first time in at least eight years, it has a seat at the table. What’s the message if labor is fighting instead of unifying?
What’s going on in the labor movement is a necessary reexamination of what the vision should be in this country for working people. When there is no hope on the political horizon, institutions like labor don’t grapple with what we’re really about. But when there is a political opportunity created by the hard work of a lot of people, including our members here in Las Vegas, then it’s necessary to grapple with how we structure ourselves to try to capitalize on that opportunity, to create better lives for the people who are the backbone of this country.
I compare it to the period after FDR was elected. During the New Deal, unions grew enormously, and the notion of what we now think of as the American middle class was invented. But it was preceded by exactly the same type of soul searching that is going on now. There were enormous disputes and fights and brawls within the labor movement about how to organize, and the relationship between local unions and then-nascent international unions.
The labor movement had to sort that out to create the conditions for growth and the invention of the American middle class. I think that’s what’s going on now.
What are the arguments today?
It’s the whole question of whether the labor movement is a handful of very smart people in Washington and New York driving the train and figuring out what’s best for the mass of workers, or whether it’s the kind of union you see in the Culinary in Las Vegas, which certainly has very strong leaders but also enormous rank-and-file activity, ownership and empowerment.
Andy Stern believes the former. He says that contract standards don’t matter, that it’s a workable approach for unions to say to corporate leaders, “Give us card-check agreement, don’t fight unionization and we’ll give you a substandard contact in return.” That will never work.
There’s a big brawl within SEIU about this very issue. Tens of thousands of health care workers left SEIU in California to form a competing union. Stern came into that state and removed popular, elected leaders from a strong local. The rank and file was outraged. He also signed a secret deal with nursing home operators in exchange for card check. The standards were unconscionable.
This represents a race to the bottom that will destroy the labor movement. This is not just Unite Here vs. SEIU. This is increasing questioning of and resistance to the notion of top-down unionism that excludes decent contracts and the rightful role of union members in local unions. It’s a totally inappropriate model.
By comparison, Unite Here’s relationships with employers are positive — but not founded on weakness or substandard contracts. They are founded on the proposition that the people who do the hard work that makes the industry possible need to have a decent standard of living, decent health benefits and a measure of retirement security. They need to have the opportunity to improve their skills and move up in their industry.
In return, we work very hard to make sure the industry prospers. I think most people in the gaming industry would agree that the labor-management partnership with most of the companies was the secret weapon of their great expansion, not just because of the relative absence of labor strife but because we raised the standard of service in the food and beverage industry.
And unions have to be able to fight where employers reject that type of partnership, as we did when we struck the Frontier in 1991.
Andy Stern says absorbing a third of your members makes sense, that the two unions are more powerful together than they are apart. He says Unite Here members had the right to secede from a merger that failed.
I don’t have any quarrel with the idea that workers from the former Unite, if they genuinely feel the merger hasn’t worked, should be able to go their own way. I do have a problem with Stern and Raynor trying to hijack workers who have never had a voice in the process, and they are attempting to do that in a number of places around the U.S. and Canada.
The overwhelming majority of the former Here and a significant chunk of the former Unite have opted to stay in Unite Here. This fight is all about Andy Stern’s unprecedented attempt to hijack a mainstream international union. He is literally trying to take our assets, our membership and our organizing jurisdiction. And it’s all because of SEIU’s failure to organize in the private sector.
The service workers have done extremely well in the public sector. But they represent less than 10 percent of private sector hospital workers in the United States. They have organized only about 11 percent of private nursing home workers. And in their signature industry — janitorial service — they have less than 10 percent of the potential pool.
By comparison, Unite Here has organized 17 percent of full service hotel workers and 48 percent of the commercial gaming industry. And the future of the labor movement is in the private sector, where most of the workers are. If we’re going to restore the middle class dream in this country, which is rapidly eroding, labor has to retool itself to organize in the private sector.
We don’t believe we’ve solved that in Unite Here but we believe we’ve learned some things about it, and again, I would offer the Culinary as a prime example.
Has the infighting hurt labor’s legislative agenda in Washington?
I believe SEIU has a major responsibility for the likely failure of the Employee Free Choice Act, and I say that regretfully. When you add up Andy Stern’s efforts to stifle local unions and undermine contract standards, his fight with Unite Here and the corruption issues of SEIU in California, it’s doing a lot of damage.
The business community has drawn a line in the sand and Republicans are standing firmly behind them. There is a significant number of Democrats who don’t support two key provisions — card check and binding arbitration — and I think SEIU is one of the major causes for their wavering.
Do you expect to win other labor law reforms if card check fails?
A lot of things should be done to conform a law passed in 1935 to the realities of the 21st century workplace.
We need to eliminate the ridiculous delays inherent in the way the National Labor Relations Board operates. Unions need a level playing field when it comes to campaigning. Nobody would support political elections in this country that are run like union representation elections. The business community argues that’s how we elect our president, but we don’t elect our president in a situation where the only person who has access to the voters is the incumbent, where the incumbent can compel all the voters to come and listen to him for endless amounts of hours on pain of dismissal if you don’t come, without any chance for the other side to present its views.
But I’m loath to predict that those things will be done.
Where does that leave unions?
The labor movement has to do what the Obama campaign did — reach out at the grass-roots, community level to that great majority of American working people who have never been in a union, and who don’t know much about unions.
The people who work for a living in this country are being victimized by the disappearance of health benefits, the disappearance of retirement benefits, a declining standard of living, and the reality that their children will likely be worse off than they were.
We have to reach out to the 93 percent of the private workforce not in a union, not to tell them what the union will do for them, but to involve them, the way Culinary has done here. We have to empower them, show them that the labor movement, when it’s at its best, is a tool for them to empower themselves, just as the Obama campaign was.
But can that effort succeed without card check? Employers like Wal-Mart have thwarted labor’s every attempt at unionization.
I don’t underestimate the economic power of Wal-Mart. But the key to overcoming even the most brutal employer, whether it’s Wal-Mart or Station Casinos, is doing what Obama did, which means involving workers directly. I predict that Station Casinos will wind up being unionized, and it will do so because the people who work there will join together to support the union as a tool to improve their lives.
Is it hard for them to overcome the fear that comes with an unrelenting anti-union campaign? Of course. Would it be easier with legislated card check? Yes. But if you’re serious about the objective, you’ll get there. Who knew the Frontier strike would last six years? I certainly didn’t.
We talk about the manufacturing sector in this country as if somehow God ordained that those would be good jobs with good benefits. People forget that factories were sweatshops with terribly low wages and no benefits at all until the great organizing campaigns of the 1930s and ’40s made those into good jobs. There is no inherent economic reason we can’t do the same thing in the service sector today, and our advantage is you can’t export our jobs.
I think there’s a hunger in this country to re-create the middle class dream. The labor movement has got to retool itself and present itself as the primary tool for doing that.
Wasn’t that what you and Stern tried to do when you broke from the AFL-CIO and formed the “Change to Win” federation?
Yes. And it has to be judged as a failure. There’s a time for risk taking, and I don’t regret being part of taking that risk. But when we try something big and it doesn’t work, we have to own up to that.
Change to Win failed for the exact same reason Andy Stern’s New York-Washington model won’t work for the broader labor movement: It has no grass roots. It only exists in Washington, D.C. The AFL-CIO, for all of its problems — and it has severe problems — at least has a life at the state and local level. Change to Win did create good competition in the political arena, and the labor movement as a whole mounted an incredibly successful election effort in 2008. But now that the election is behind us, let’s figure something else out.
What about Stern’s offer to you, to join forces and be a “powerhouse” in a 2-million-member SEIU?
We will remain Unite Here.
We’re going to have some short-term financial challenges, no doubt. But I’m highly confident in the outcome of the legal issues. Those assets belong to Unite Here and its members, not Bruce Raynor or Andy Stern. We’ll be fine because the building blocks of our union are the locals, not the international union.
Neither I or anybody else in Unite Here has any interest in joining SEIU, and not for personal reasons, but because they stand for the suicide of the labor movement. If death comes, it won’t be employer-inflicted. That’s why I called it suicide.