Today, the Las Vegas Sun sat down with UNITE HERE president (formerly “co-president”) John Wilhelm to discuss his tumultuous relationship with the SEIU, the future of the labor movement, and the future of his own union. Wilhelm didn’t pull many punches when discussing his relationship with Service Employees president Andy Stern.
Wilhelm on Stern’s brand of top-down unionism:
It’s the whole question of whether the labor movement is a handful of very smart people in Washington and New York driving the train and figuring out what’s best for the mass of workers, or whether it’s the kind of union you see in the Culinary in Las Vegas, which certainly has very strong leaders but also enormous rank-and-file activity, ownership and empowerment.
Andy Stern believes the former. He says that contract standards don’t matter, that it’s a workable approach for unions to say to corporate leaders, “Give us card-check agreement, don’t fight unionization and we’ll give you a substandard contact in return.” That will never work.
There’s a big brawl within SEIU about this very issue. Tens of thousands of health care workers left SEIU in California to form a competing union. Stern came into that state and removed popular, elected leaders from a strong local. The rank and file was outraged. He also signed a secret deal with nursing home operators in exchange for card check. The standards were unconscionable.
This represents a race to the bottom that will destroy the labor movement. This is not just Unite Here vs. SEIU. This is increasing questioning of and resistance to the notion of top-down unionism that excludes decent contracts and the rightful role of union members in local unions. It’s a totally inappropriate model.
Wilhelm on the failure of Change to Win:
[I]t has to be judged as a failure. There’s a time for risk taking, and I don’t regret being part of taking that risk. But when we try something big and it doesn’t work, we have to own up to that.
Change to Win failed for the exact same reason Andy Stern’s New York-Washington model won’t work for the broader labor movement: It has no grass roots. It only exists in Washington, D.C. The AFL-CIO, for all of its problems — and it has severe problems — at least has a life at the state and local level. Change to Win did create good competition in the political arena, and the labor movement as a whole mounted an incredibly successful election effort in 2008. But now that the election is behind us, let’s figure something else out.
And finally, Wilhelm on whether he will accept Andy Stern’s offer to join SEIU:
Neither I or anybody else in Unite Here has any interest in joining SEIU, and not for personal reasons, but because they stand for the suicide of the labor movement. If death comes, it won’t be employer-inflicted. That’s why I called it suicide.