John Wilhelm ’67 was a year and a half out of college and working as a community organizer in the Hill neighborhood when he saw the ad in the New Haven Register.
“Labor leader trainee wanted. Long hours. Low pay. Must be single. Box F,” the ad read.
On a whim, Wilhelm saved it.
“I read that ad every day for five days,” Wilhelm said. “I found it so intriguing I finally wrote Box F a letter, and I said I was very interested in discussing this opportunity. I couldn’t tell what it was from the ad.”
What it turned out to be was a job with Local 217, one of New Haven’s unions organized under the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union.
Box F was Vinnie Sirabella, a fiery organizer with an eighth-grade education and a determination to lead Yale’s unionized workers to victory against management.
And Wilhelm’s tentative letter of interest would eventually lead him to the presidency of HERE. The inquiry began a career that would help define three decades of labor activity in America, render him a legend among labor leaders in New Haven, and position him as a national figure with the potential to revitalize the labor movement in the United States.
As another round of contract negotiations for Yale’s unions gets under way this winter, the man at the helm of the labor movement looms large, groomed by past labor fights at Yale.
Wilhelm left the city more than a decade ago. But to many involved in the upcoming negotiations, he remains a notable force.
“I am still conscious of the presence of John Wilhelm on the union side of the world,” said Brian Tunney, Yale’s director of labor relations. “He’s a formidable adversary.”
And in New Haven, “no single man has had such a significant impact as John Wilhelm,” Local 35 President Bob Proto said.
As the most powerful man in the parent of Yale’s unions, Wilhelm considers crafting a successful future for Yale organized workers one of his highest ambitions.
But with union and University leaders publicly advocating a new, friendlier tone in labor relations this year, Wilhelm professed doubts.
Instead, Wilhelm said he predicts a struggle similar to the one that led to the first contract for Yale’s clerical and technical workers, Local 34. It included sympathy strikes by service and maintenance workers in Local 35, who had formed an alliance with the clerical and technical workers.
This time, Wilhelm sees the struggle coming over another alliance. The recognized unions are now working with graduate students and hospital workers in their efforts to unionize.
University officials oppose recognizing either group.
“[Yale] is relying on the notion that employees won’t support each other,” Wilhelm said. “It’s so misguided. As the saying goes, those that don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it.”
Whatever the outcome, the coming year will likely bear many signs of Wilhelm’s stamp on the city and the movement, bringing one of labor’s most powerful figures back to his first and perhaps still foremost commitment, the one quietly advertised through “Box F.”
A union education
John Wilhelm, Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude in history, graduated from Yale in 1967. It was a year before the first labor strike of what union and University officials alike refer to as the beginning of the modern era of labor relations at Yale.
That year, a more aggressive University strategy caught workers off guard. After a short-lived strike by Local 35, then Yale’s only union, the workers received what they believed to be poor contracts.
The struggles of 1968 fostered a stronger resolve among union members and a deeper determination among organizers to fight the University.
What ensued was three decades of bitter labor relations, including six strikes in the next 25 years, and one of the most acrimonious labor-management relationships in the nation.
Wilhelm worked under Sirabella’s tutelage until Sirabella left for a position on the West Coast in 1978. Then Wilhelm took over as business manager for Local 35, leading New Haven’s unions in what had become a difficult era for unions nationwide.
Tough times, new tactic
The 1970s brought three strikes at Yale, and tougher times for the labor movement in general.
As manufacturing jobs shut down or moved out of the country, union membership declined. Meanwhile, the burgeoning conservative movement and ensuing Reagan era ushered in greater animosity toward unions, labor experts said. Membership levels continued to plummet.
The reduced numbers of union members opened room for new strategies.
While union leaders had long viewed the mission of unions as providing services for existing members, Wilhelm and a small group of new leaders began to stress the importance of developing support by constantly building new membership.
“[Wilhelm] is one of the few labor leaders in North America that understands that in order for organized workers to get power, you need to devote most of your resources to organizing non-organized workers,” said Bruce Raynor, president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. “Not just for them, but for organized workers too. If you don’t control the majority of workers in a city, you don’t get benefits for any workers.”
Wilhelm applied the new strategy in New Haven, organizing Yale’s clerical and technical workers in what became Local 34 and negotiating their first contract in a bitter fight lasting through 1984 and 1985. In 1988, HERE’s national leadership sent Wilhelm to Las Vegas, where, through organizing, he increased membership in the Las Vegas local from 18,000 to nearly 50,000.
The majority of his organizing involved card-count neutrality agreements.
Under such agreements, employers agree to recognize a union if a majority of workers sign cards supporting a union. In the meantime, employers are not allowed to make any statements regarding unionization.
“John can be partners with business executives when it’s in the best interests of members,” Raynor said. “But he can wage righteous war when it’s in the best interest of members, too.”
And he waged such a war to form a union among workers at Las Vegas’ Frontier Hotel-Casino.
It took a six year, four month and 10 day strike before the culinary workers at the hotel were recognized as a union in 1998.
Under Wilhelm’s leadership, not one worker crossed the picket line.
Moving past the mob
After his successes in Las Vegas, Wilhelm continued to move up the ranks in the union’s leadership.
He had just become HERE’s secretary-treasurer in 1996 when Yale’s unions last negotiated their contracts.
And he was next in line for the presidency in 1998, when HERE President Edward Hanley resigned amid allegations of racketeering.
Hanley, then in his 25th year as president, had long been the focus of scrutiny for suspected ties to organized crime. His resignation came after a federally appointed monitor found widespread financial wrongdoing in the union, though the monitor found no direct evidence implicating Hanley.
With federal monitors on the union still in place because of the racketeering charges, Wilhelm worked to change HERE’s reputation, as well as to change union strategies.
A small group of new labor leaders including Wilhelm began shifting the movement from traditional union models toward a broader social movement, said Gary Chaison, a professor at Clark University in Boston who specializes in labor relations.
“Wilhelm is identified with organizing unions, those trying to turn the labor movement into a social movement,” Chaison said. “They are trying to turn organizing into a civil right, making the right to join a union a civil right.”
In addition to organizing workers to increase membership, Wilhelm developed alliances with other unions, especially Raynor’s UNITE and the Service Employees International Union.
His effort to organize as many workers as possible gained attention in labor circles recently when the AFL-CIO, at his urging, reversed its longtime opposition to immigrant labor.
But Wilhelm has also faced challenges.
Some union members in other cities have criticized Wilhelm for not getting rid of enough of Hanley’s cronies and note that Wilhelm was not exactly an outsider when Hanley resigned.
And with the economy now in recession, others have questioned the future of the union Wilhelm rebuilt largely by appealing to workers who felt left out of the prosperous economy of the 1990s.
“Labor is having a terrible year,” Chaison said. “It was a bad year last year with the recession and layoffs. Now conservatives within the movement are saying, ‘We waited for the last five years, now what?’ The movement is becoming increasingly marginalized.”
Since Sept. 11, HERE has been hit particularly hard. HERE officials estimate that more than a third of the union’s 265,000 members have been laid off, including 15,000 of the 50,000 in Las Vegas. With its members’ jobs dependent on the struggling travel and tourism industry, HERE faces a difficult future, leaders say.
But even as his union struggles in the aftermath of Sept. 11, Wilhelm remains the virtual crown prince of organized labor.
“He’s a rising star in the movement,” said Chaison, who like nearly every other observer has pegged Wilhelm as the likely successor to AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney.
A legacy at Yale
Wilhelm denies any ambition to head the AFL-CIO but is candid in stating his goals for Yale.
“I have felt the career I have been able to have is a privilege,” Wilhelm said. “But I would like to figure out a way to repair Yale before I retire.”
But Wilhelm is candid with his skepticism about a fix coming anytime soon. Instead, he likens the coming year to the effort to form Local 34 in 1984.
The Local 34 organizing drive involved what many saw as an unlikely alliance between the predominantly female Local 34 and the largely male Local 35.
Wilhelm claims the differences between the two unions were overstated by Yale officials, much as he says distinctions between graduate students trying to unionize and Yale workers are overstated now. But many who were there in 1984 recall the divisions the alliance, and Wilhelm, had to overcome.
“[Local] 34 was women who were largely middle class and not your typical union members, but also people who had been around when [Local] 35 had been on strike and had crossed their picket lines repeatedly,” said Eve Weinbaum ’84 GRD ’97, a professor of labor relations at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
“He was an unusual figure because he had earned the respect of Local 35 guys, who thought of him as one of theirs,” Weinbaum added. “Then he won the trust of the women. It was not clear he would win their trust or that they would want to sign on with him, but he really did.”
Wilhelm held the groups together through difficult strikes by emphasizing the importance of remaining united, Proto said.
“John organized us to understand that, and here we are in 2001,” Proto added. “He was absolutely right. Who knows where we would be if he had not?”
The 1984 battle over Local 34’s first contract is now remembered as one of the most tense and contentious moments in Yale labor relations history.
But Michael Finnerty, who served as Yale’s vice president of administration during the 1984 negotiations, remembered Wilhelm with admiration despite the acrimonious process.
“We clearly had by definition adversarial roles during that time, but professional adversarial roles,” Finnerty said.
Finnerty added that the agreement between such polarized sides owed a lot to Wilhelm.
“We were able to do that in a very, very large part because of his talent and abilities,” Finnerty said.
Trying to fix Yale
Wilhelm said he recently told President Richard Levin and Kurt Schmoke ’71, senior fellow of the Yale Corporation, “If the three of us retire before fixing labor relations at Yale, we should be ashamed.”
Recalling the conversation, Levin said, “I share that view. We all share the goal of improving things here.”
But Wilhelm remains skeptical about achieving their shared goal this year. For all the overtures toward improving the relationship this year, including the delay of negotiations while both sides met with a labor-management consultant, Wilhelm said he expects a year filled more with conflict.
“Somehow [administrators] think relations with 34 and 35 can be improved while at the same time gearing up for one of these titanic battles with GESO and the hospital workers,” Wilhelm said. “I don’t think you can have cooperative progress at the same time as having a fight in the same place. I think it’s sincere but totally unrealistic about what’s workable.”
It will be Proto, not Wilhelm, who sets the tone this year, but Wilhelm is never far from anyone’s mind.
“John Wilhelms don’t come around often,” Proto said. “There’s no way anyone can fill his shoes. What we try to do as members is to keep what John believed in going.”