New Haven’s top labor leader over the past half-century is retiring his union-made jersey.
John Wilhelm plans to step down as national president of UNITE HERE effective Nov. 29, he announced in an email message.
Wilhelm, who’s 67, came to New Haven to attend Yale, then stayed to work for its unions. He continued working for the organization for 43 years.
Wilhelm presided over the blue-collar union, Local 35 (formerly of the Federation of University Employees, then UNITE HERE), and then successfully led the organizing drive to create Local 34, which represents clerical and technical workers. He succeeded where several other union organizers had failed in the 15 years previous to the successful 1983 vote to form the union; he then led a successful strike against Yale to win a first contract.
Today those unions represent the most significant private-sector workforce in town and have become a potent force in local and state elections.
Wilhelm rose to president of the national UNITE HERE union, a position he has held for the past 15 years. He helped negotiate a landmark union contract with Las Vegas casinos. He meanwhile kept a home in this area (first New Haven, then Branford) and remained personally active in local demonstrations and Yale labor issues, helping the two sides transform one of the country’s most contentious university-workforce relationships into a productive one. (Click on the play arrow to watch him address an AFL-CIO convention at the Omni.)
Wilhelm plans to recommend UNITE/HERE General Vice President D. Taylor as his successor when the General Executive Board meets on Nov. 29.
Asked about his retirement plans, Wilhelm responded by email: “I have agreed to my successor’s request to spend some time for the next year helping with the Union’s pension and health programs. Other than that, I have no specific plans in mind.”