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.