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Organization Man | The Nation

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Organization Man

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Yet if HERE is going to grow as Wilhelm wants, it must undergo a massive internal transformation. Less than half of the 112 locals in the union are at all engaged in organizing, and Wilhelm says that fewer than ten have strong programs. There are too few experienced organizers. Even many of the strongest locals still do not have an adequate organization of shop stewards. Local malfeasance persists, and some officials are stuck in old business-union habits. In the past three years, the international has put trustees in charge of nine locals, an unusually high rate. Although federal monitoring may be over, the task of creating a democratic union is far from finished.

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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Indeed, part of the task is defining what makes a union democratic--that is, meaningfully controlled by the members, who have a right to freely debate and decide its major policy directions. Wilhelm argues that "the forms of democracy without the organization and involvement of the membership isn't worth much. I believe strongly in the involvement of members at every level--rank-and-file bargaining committee members, ratification of contracts by secret ballot, recruitment of staff from the rank and file. If we're working in organizing the members, there's democratic life. The forms of democracy are not nearly as important as the practice of democracy."

The better locals cultivate membership involvement with a wide range of tactics, like developing networks of stewards and shop floor leaders, mobilizing members for protests, resolving grievances through group actions at work, circulating petitions and wearing union buttons, or putting members on bargaining committees. "The whole thing of union democracy goes much further than electing officers and holding union meetings," argues Casey, whose 9,000-member local can mobilize 500 members for an action in a few days and 1,500 in a couple of weeks. "It's how you do your day-to-day business." Better to get a 25-cent raise with workers fully involved in the fight, he argues, than a 50-cent raise negotiated by the union president and the employer, because the first approach builds the union. But Casey goes on to say, "You know the biggest problem? Letting go, letting people have a chance to make mistakes."

That is a challenge for HERE and Wilhelm. Union staff do need to recruit and train rank-and-file leaders, and to organize members to be involved in the daily life of the union, especially to make sure that the less educated or new immigrant members have a voice. But ultimately, in a democratic union members must also cast meaningful votes to elect their representatives. Even in the revived locals, staff members, mainly recruited by Sirabella and Wilhelm over several decades, seem to retain control of the most important decisions. Shifting more power to the rank and file, as the San Francisco local is doing, should be a natural progression, in keeping with his mentor Sirabella's advice: Trust the members.

That also means tolerating criticism from within. During the Hanley years, a small group of dissidents--mainly higher-income tipped workers in several big locals--formed Heretic (HERE To Insure Change), which attacked corruption and called for more democracy. In Chicago, a Heretic-linked group lost a 1999 officer election with 40 percent of the votes. Wilhelm then put the local in trusteeship, which the dissidents challenged as an unnecessary interference with what they hoped would be their victory in the next election. Although Wilhelm intended to extend the trusteeship through 2001, he plans to end it after June elections, which will be contested by fired former officers, their longtime local opponents and trustee Henry Tamarin. While the Chicago dissidents vilify Wilhelm as an extension of the Hanley regime, Heretics in other cities--while still arguing for greater internal democracy--view Wilhelm more hopefully. San Francisco Heretic leader Jon Palewicz wishes Wilhelm would mobilize members "from the neck up" as well as turn out bodies for rallies, but he still believes Wilhelm will bring needed change. "The man and his ideas are just wonderful," he says.

This July Wilhelm will almost certainly be re-elected president at the union's convention. The national leadership will change to reflect both the membership and Wilhelm's strategic vision, with West Coast director Sherri Chiesa likely to be elected general secretary-treasurer, the first woman to serve as a HERE general officer. In a gesture toward greater internal democracy, Wilhelm will also propose that any member can be a candidate for national office, not just convention delegates. The convention should further consolidate Wilhelm's control in the union, giving him the opportunity to accelerate his organizing strategy.

Early on during his apprenticeship with Sirabella, Wilhelm told his wife, "This is so much fun I can't believe anyone is paying me to do it." Thirty years later he's standing before another group of rank-and-file leaders in Los Angeles, praising them for coming together to give fellow workers the strength to stand up to their boss and telling them, "I have always thought this is the most satisfying work anyone can do." After all these years, it appears that he still means it.

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