One by one, the mainly Latina women rose and told their stories. Over the previous year or so most of the sixty people in the union hall had emerged as leaders among their co-workers in hotels, restaurants and cafeterias throughout Los Angeles. Rosa Valencia recounted how she and fellow housekeepers at the nonunion luxury Loews Hotel had protested their pay by refusing to go to their floor. Shortly afterward she was visited by a woman who talked about a living-wage campaign. “Wouldn’t it be great if she was from a union?” she asked a fellow housekeeper. After five visits, she discovered that the woman was indeed an organizer for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (HERE).

Throughout it all, a neatly suited, chubby man with slightly graying brown hair sat listening, his face beaming with clear delight. As a chant of “Si, se puede” (“yes, we can”) died down, John Wilhelm stood up. “I’m not going to make you wait five visits,” he said. “I’m from the union and proud of it.” Wilhelm, 55, had reason to be proud. Working behind the scenes for the past thirty years, he has led the transformation of a hidebound, declining and often corrupt union into one of the most aggressive and innovative unions in the United States, intensely focused on organizing and on training a broad cadre of worker leaders, like the women he met with in Los Angeles, who mobilize members for organizing drives and job and political actions.

While some union leaders, like Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa, get more press attention–while accomplishing little–Wilhelm has quietly helped to make HERE one of a handful of unions doing serious organizing, among them the SEIU (service employees), UNITE (textiles and garments), AFSCME (public workers) and the Communications Workers of America. Yet HERE is still small (275,000 members), and its evolution toward full rank-and-file democracy is a work in progress.

In 1998, when former president Edward Hanley stepped down after a federal court-appointed monitor uncovered widespread financial wrongdoing, the union’s general executive board named Wilhelm president. Since then, besides organizing aggressively, Wilhelm has played a key role in getting the labor movement to support the rights of immigrant workers, whom he sees as crucial to the future of organized labor and progressive politics. Although he expresses interest in nothing beyond building HERE, Wilhelm is already widely but privately discussed as a possible successor to AFL-CIO president John Sweeney (secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka, otherwise the presumptive heir, has not been able to clear the legal and political clouds stemming from his indirect role in the Teamsters fundraising scandal that sank Ron Carey). Wilhelm’s efforts, shaped in part by the peculiarities of HERE, may not be a model in all respects for reviving organized labor, but he has grappled effectively with many of the difficult issues that a still-floundering movement must confront if it is to survive.

After graduating from Yale in 1967, Wilhelm worked in a low-income New Haven neighborhood to weld together civil rights advocacy, antiwar action, community organizing and electoral politics. In the fall of 1969, he spotted an ad in the local paper: “Wanted: labor leader trainee, long hours, low pay, must be single, Box F.” Against the advice of friends, he responded. The recruiter was Vincent Sirabella, a self-educated ninth-grade dropout, schooled in a regional radical-syndicalist labor tradition and in the hard knocks of fighting both bosses and union leaders. Sirabella was looking for help as he tried to rebuild a HERE blue-collar service local at Yale that the university had tried to squash. Sirabella, who believed that the labor movement should tap into the idealistic energy of the New Left, tutored Wilhelm in every aspect of union organizing and politics, but the core message that Wilhelm says stuck with him was simple: Tell the workers the truth, and they’ll do the right thing.

While helping Sirabella on a string of thirteen New England organizing victories, Wilhelm continued to assist the Yale service workers. Then, after other unions had failed, he led a successful drive to organize white-collar employees at the university. A dramatic strike in 1984-85 won a contract and showed a dispirited labor movement that strikes could succeed in the Reagan era by deeply involving workers in their own fight and by creating broad community alliances.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.