Wilhelm's success in Las Vegas accelerated his rise in the union to secretary-treasurer in 1996. As he worked with different locals, he recruited and trained new staff who were loyal to him and his aggressive, multifaceted organizing strategy, but he remained close to Hanley and HERE's traditional business unionists. In 1995 Wilhelm urged Hanley to accept a consent decree with the US Attorney's office to settle a federal racketeering complaint. "If we were going to survive, we had to put all this government stuff behind us," Wilhelm said.
The union agreed to eliminate "any vestiges of an externally induced corruption problem" and to foster democracy, integrity and fair representation of members. Clearly, there had been mob influence in a small number of locals and corruption in many more, but despite longstanding suspicions at the Justice Department and elsewhere about Hanley himself, the federal monitor appointed under the consent decree, Kurt Muellenberg, found that "there was no credible evidence to support any finding that Mr. Hanley was associated with or indeed controlled by organized crime." Muellenberg, however, did paint a sordid picture of financial abuse, cronyism, use of union funds for officers' personal expenses, ghost payrolling, undemocratic procedures, minimal training of staff, inadequate auditing, nepotism, questionable charitable contributions, dubious consultant payments and much more under Hanley. When Hanley resigned, keeping his full salary, Wilhelm, as the new president, agreed to implement the monitor's recommendations. (In 1996 HERE had established an Ethical Practices Code and Public Review Board.) Wilhelm believed the changes would help the union, but he was also interested in polishing its image. So when the consent decree was lifted last December, he argued that "the primary value [of the monitor] is that we have government verification that we don't have the kind of problems alleged over the years."
Wilhelm remains an ardent defender of Hanley, who died in a car accident early last year, decrying the "unfairness of the publicity" and the "final indignity" of the monitor report in his glowing eulogy. "I don't want to argue that Hanley was somehow perfect," Wilhelm said, "but he was a transition figure," whose traditional background enabled him to protect and underwrite a new union growing within the old. "I wouldn't be president--or someone like me--without him and his decision to be a transitional figure," Wilhelm argued.
The reluctance to criticize Hanley's clear shortcomings compromises the union's effort to create a new internal culture, but since Hanley's friends still hold some power it does have political advantages. (The executive board, nonetheless, unanimously approved Wilhelm's refusal to rehire Hanley's son, Thomas Hanley, after he had been barred from union office for a year.) "John has been very smart about how leaders need to change the culture of the union," argues San Francisco local president Mike Casey. "You can't just come in and dump on older, more entrenched leadership. You have to honor their experience and treat them with respect they've earned while supporting emergence of new leadership. It's always about striking a balance."
Wilhelm strikes his own tightrope balance on a number of key issues. He reflects the influence of his two mentors, borrowing from both the insurgent radicalism of Sirabella and the insider politics of Hanley. For example, under Wilhelm the union confronts hostile owners with full force, sending a message to others that a fight with HERE will be costly and unending (as with the twenty-year battle with Marriott in San Francisco or the Las Vegas Frontier strike). But he also wants to help employers who accept the union through such measures as keeping down employer healthcare costs while providing workers expansive coverage through the union's health and welfare fund. "I support [cooperation with management] as long as it's not done from a position of weakness," Wilhelm said. "If our union can be value added to employers without detracting from our responsibility to members, then that's very much in the members' interest."
Whenever unions ally with their employers on public policy, there is a risk that narrow interests can prevail over the social good. With the gambling industry as a partner, Wilhelm faces a political minefield. Progressive critics of gambling looked askance when Wilhelm defended the industry while serving on a presidential commission, where he argued that--when unionized--the industry generates good jobs. Supporters of Native American rights were troubled when Wilhelm's HERE fought a California initiative permitting Indian casinos, which the Las Vegas corporations opposed (but the Indian casino operators were also lousy employers who denied workers the right to organize). Wilhelm, who doesn't drink or gamble himself, is not a blanket defender of gambling. He is troubled that poor people are risking their paychecks at the new unionized Detroit casinos, and he opposes the spread of gambling equipment into local bars and other venues. "I think there will be an incredible backlash against the amount of gambling," he said, "and I think there should be."
Ultimately everything Wilhelm does is focused on building the union, since its power and contracts are closely linked to the share of workers the union represents in a local market--or increasingly the national market, as chains take over. Skeptics have long wondered whether the union has given up potential contract gains to make organizing easier. D. Taylor, the staff director of the Las Vegas Culinary Workers, admits that "if we ditched [the card-check and neutrality agreements in contracts] we could get a little more money or one or two more rights" but weaken the union in the long run. By aiding organizing in some hotels, the agreements free union resources for the tough organizing fights.
Because Wilhelm views organizing as a way of gaining power, not just dues-payers, the union doesn't pursue random promising targets but rather homes in on regions, sectors (like gambling) and employers within the union's core industries where existing members give the union leverage. Organizing at HERE involves more than "bottom up" recruitment of new members or "top down" persuasion of an employer to recognize the union, as some retail and construction unions have long done. It involves both of those plus meticulous corporate and industry research (HERE has a large, skilled and even feared research department), political action, legal strategies and more. Other unions may use some of these tactics, especially when they reach roadblocks. "What's unique is that [Wilhelm] begins every organizing drive with the explicit acknowledgment that all of those pieces will be involved," said attorney Richard McCracken, a key Wilhelm ally.