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Organization Man | The Nation

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Organization Man

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In 1999 HERE organized 18,229 members, roughly its share of AFL-CIO president John Sweeney's goal of a million new members a year. Last year it slipped, organizing only 8,812 (but in a growing number of locals), but it bounded back this past January with its best month ever, organizing 4,744 members. While the union wins 85 percent of its campaigns (nearly all without NLRB involvement), it is not growing as fast as its industries. Working in the private sector, with unfriendly laws and with a handful of corporations now dominating global hotel, food services and gambling industries, HERE has to exploit every vulnerability of its opponents and every lever of power.

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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Consider politics. Unlike most union presidents, Wilhelm devotes relatively little attention to politics. But when HERE does become involved, it turns out the troops--helping elect Maggie Carlton, a waitress and HERE member, to the Nevada State Senate, and a progressive Latina, Hilda Solis, to Congress over a conservative incumbent Democrat in Southern California last year. HERE has also backed many local living-wage campaigns. Last year the Los Angeles and Santa Monica locals helped defeat both a phony living-wage initiative and local industry-sponsored candidates in Santa Monica, where in May the City Council, including progressives supported by the local unions, established a landmark living wage covering all large businesses in the tourist district that had been pushed by the union, working with a community group and local clergy who are also helping HERE to organize hotel workers.

Despite his roots in New Left politics, Wilhelm approaches politics pragmatically. "I'm not a professional Democrat," he says. "Political decisions ought to be based on what supports organizing." He was unenthused about Gore (whom he tactically supported) but had no interest in Nader. Over the past two election cycles, HERE gave roughly one-fifth of its federal political action money to Republicans, more than most unions. In Massachusetts, for example, HERE broke with the rest of the labor movement and endorsed Republican Governor Paul Cellucci, after he had facilitated organizing at publicly subsidized sites.

Wilhelm says bluntly, "I have no interest in anything other than building unions. My reading of American history is that we can't have genuinely progressive politics without a stronger labor movement." If the labor movement represented another 5 percent of the work force, Democrats would now control all branches of the federal government, Wilhelm argues, and "if the labor movement was 30 percent of all workers instead of 13 percent, I think the political solutions would be self-evident." But without more members, even a politically active labor movement will soon reach its limits of influence, he believes.

Wilhelm sees new immigrants as offering great potential for both union organizing and progressive politics. Vigorous defense of immigrants' rights is in labor's self-interest, he tells union leaders, not just a moral mission. "It is critically important for the future of our union to develop our identity as an immigrant union," Wilhelm says. That's partly because of who is cleaning American hotel rooms and restaurant tables: Forty percent of the Las Vegas local is Latino and 10 percent Asian. But there's also a dynamic energy among new immigrant workers that labor can tap, as Wilhelm discovered last summer in what he called "the most remarkable event I've ever been at"--a Los Angeles labor-community immigrant rights rally of 20,000, mostly Latinos, chanting for immigration amnesty and unions. In Minneapolis HERE also linked up last year with immigrant and community groups to successfully fight the attempted deportation of undocumented immigrant workers at Holiday Inn Express after they won union recognition. Wilhelm believes that the broad mobilization directly contributed to a strong citywide contract that the union won after a short strike last summer.

Wilhelm is determined that unlike during the 1980s, the union will catch the next wave of hotel construction. Since many hotel projects seek public subsidies, use public land or are linked to new public convention centers, the union argues they should create decent jobs. In more than sixty cases, representing as many as 15,000 new hotel jobs, the union has organized politically to win agreements with hotel operators and developers requiring them to be neutral and to recognize the union after a card check in exchange for a union promise of labor peace. Increasingly HERE is working with building-trades unions, which often negotiate similar project labor agreements, and in cities where it is weak or even absent, it has mobilized central labor councils to win such neutrality deals.

As the leader of a small union, Wilhelm has learned to form alliances with community, student and religious groups as well as other unions. In several instances, HERE and SEIU have collaborated on organizing projects (as at Los Angeles Airport), and they have even swapped locals that more appropriately belonged in the other union. Although Wilhelm has made the gambling industry his top priority, followed by organizing first-class hotels in major cities, he also wants the union to step up its organizing of cafeterias and food service companies at corporations and universities. (The successful campus campaign against the Sodexho-Marriott food-service corporation is partly a collaboration with HERE organizing.) He also wants to create a framework for the union's historically autonomous locals to conduct much larger-scale organizing, launch a national organizing drive at a major hotel chain and build alliances for a global campaign at a multinational hotel firm. "The industry has rapidly become globalized," he notes, "while we're trying to become national."

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