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Organization Man | The Nation

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Organization Man

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The 1980s were a hard time for all of labor, including HERE. When Edward Hanley was elected president in 1973, HERE had 450,000 members, largely in craft-oriented locals, whose leaders had ranged historically from militant leftists to business-union bureaucrats to crooks linked with organized crime. Hanley consolidated these locals, combining tipped, high-income workers like bartenders, doormen and banquet waiters with poorly paid and neglected housekeepers and kitchen workers. Hanley was a bartender who had grown up in the old business-union culture of backroom deals with employers and big-city machine politicians. Hanley, like many local leaders, was totally unprepared for the antiunion onslaught by new nationwide corporations. Membership plummeted as hotels closed or changed hands, locals were decertified and virtually all of the unionized restaurants walked away from the union. Over the years, even his own home local in Chicago, controlled by his son while Hanley remained on the local's payroll, became a financially mismanaged basket case.

About the Author

David Moberg
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, writes frequently for The Nation on labor issues.

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Yet there was a crucial difference between Hanley and other union officials cast from the same mold: Hanley embraced mavericks like Sirabella (who became director of organizing), Wilhelm and a host of new organizers recruited out of universities--including Wilhelm's alma mater--as well as from the union ranks. While protecting them politically within the union, he generously financed their ambitious organizing drives and costly strikes (while also generously financing favored locals that did nothing), and sent them in as troubleshooters to salvage floundering locals. Most of the big locals that now lead the union in organizing and contracts were remade by Sirabella, Wilhelm and their allies.

Although New York may have the richest hotel contract and San Francisco the most militantly democratic hotel union, Las Vegas--the biggest local--is the dominant model for the revived HERE and is one of the labor movement's organizing success stories. During a three-month strike in 1984, the major Las Vegas casinos inflicted severe damage on the HERE Culinary Workers local. A few years later, Hanley sent Wilhelm to Las Vegas to try to turn things around. The staff wanted to focus on strengthening the contract, but workers in a poll emphasized organizing the nonunion hotels. "But for the poll, we would not have had the courage to make that the priority," Wilhelm said.

Drawing on his organizing experience at Yale, Wilhelm insured that worker-led committees were formed in every hotel department. The union had been dominated by the bartender and banquet waiter elite, but Wilhelm insisted on promoting women, minorities and lesser-paid, unskilled workers as leaders, and putting rank-and-file members on contract bargaining committees.

While the union fought some companies, it was willing to cooperate with others. In what was at the time a pioneering strategy, in 1989 Wilhelm negotiated a "card check" agreement with casino entrepreneur Steve Wynn's Golden Nugget, which allowed the union to organize his corporation's new hotels without interference and to be recognized when a majority of workers signed union cards. This was a way of bypassing the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election procedures, which allow employers time and tactics to fight unions. Shortly afterward, Wynn's Mirage opened with a staff of 3,300 workers, who were quickly organized. As part of the deal, the union agreed to be more cooperative with management by changing some traditional work classifications, among other things. At the same time, however, the union engaged in no-holds-barred battles with uncooperative owners, most notably a victorious strike lasting six years, four months and ten days--and costing $26 million--against the Frontier Hotel. Not one striker crossed the picket line; other Culinary Workers kept their dues high to support strikers, and the union drew backing from dozens of unions, community leaders and even casino owners.

Using the carrot and the stick, the Culinary Workers were able to ride the Las Vegas boom, and their membership grew from 18,000 in 1989 to nearly 50,000 now, 90 percent through card-check agreements. The Las Vegas local spends 43 percent of its budget on organizing (the international spends nearly the same; overall, unions average less than 5 percent). Without neutrality and card-check agreements, it is unlikely the local would have expanded its share of a growing market, giving it power to win better wages and benefits (HERE hotel room cleaners make $22,000 a year, 44 percent more in pay, plus greater benefits, than similar workers in nonunion Reno). But cooperation has not stopped the local's "internal organizing" to enhance workers' power on the job, nor has it ended fights with unionized hotels, for example, over subcontracting of restaurants to nonunion businesses. And the local still faces tough fights against new antiunion hotels.

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