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Wednesday, February 21, 2001

Union’s looming
takeover of Local 5
a rare event

Eric Gill offers no
protest at the prospect
of being replaced

By Tim Ruel

The likely appointment of a trustee to take over Hawaii hotel and restaurant employees union Local 5 is a rare event, meant to deal with serious problems within a union, not just infighting, a labor attorney said.

"The idea behind it was corruption and mismanagement," said Honolulu attorney Michael Nauyokas, who is not involved in the dispute over leadership of Local 5.

The appointment of an outsider to assume power over a union also doesn't happen often because it appears to contradict what a union "Local" should stand for -- local control, Nauyokas added.

"Unions generally are supposed to be democratic," he said.

But such an appointment in Hawaii by the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union appears imminent.

In a private union meeting yesterday, no Local 5 members opposed the international's move to appoint a trustee, not even union leader Eric Gill, who stands to lose his elected position of financial secretary-treasurer, Local 5's top officer.

Executives from the international say Local 5's contract talks are in "gridlock" due to infighting between Gill and the board, which includes many supporters of Gill's rival and former Local 5 leader, Tony Rutledge.

"Sometimes the baby sitter gotta go down to the playground and break up the fight," Gill said yesterday after the meeting.

Gill has previously called appointing a trustee unnecessary, saying he has shown leadership by putting the union's finances back on track. Yesterday, Gill declined to comment on why he did not oppose the international's move.

The union's General President John Wilhelm is expected to decide whether to appoint a trustee by early next week. Earlier this month, Wilhelm wrote a letter to Gill that said the local union boss may be trying to "railroad the membership" into accepting a hotel contract.

The most likely trustee candidate is the international's western regional director, Sherri Chiesa.

Chiesa would replace Gill and the local's board. She would serve up to 18 months, after which Local 5 would hold new elections, according to Ron Richardson, executive vice president of the international.

Richardson said a trustee would only remain long enough to finish reaching bargaining agreements with managers of Hawaii's hotels. About 8,000 of the 10,000 Local 5 members do not have permanent contracts and that's the main reason a trustee is needed, he said.

"It's no secret that we've had difficulties and it's no secret that my life has been a difficult one," said Gill, referring to his continuing battle with the local's executive board and Rutledge. Last year, Gill narrowly defeated Rutledge, who had run Local 5 for 14 years.

Rutledge is still president and chief executive of Unity House, a large nonprofit founded by his late father, Arthur Rutledge. Unity House supports Local 5 members and even owns the one-story Waikiki building that houses Local 5's offices.

Tony Rutledge also remains district vice president of the union's Washington, D.C.-based international, although Rutledge said yesterday he had no influence over the leadership's move to appoint a trustee. "They're not doing me any favors here," Rutledge said.

By long-standing labor laws crafted to prevent abuse, internationals must disclose specific reasons for imposing a trustee within 30 days to the U.S. Labor Department. Internationals must also detail any influence that Local members have over the appointment.

The international previously imposed a trustee on Local 5 in 1978, just two months after Rutledge defector Richard A.T. "Dick" Tam led a slate to beat both Tony Rutledge and Art Rutledge in elections -- a union first. Tam and U.S. Labor officials failed to block the trusteeship in court. However, in elections that followed two years later, Tam again beat Tony Rutledge and successfully assumed the office of financial secretary-treasurer.

Tony Rutledge said yesterday a trustee is again necessary because Gill is too inexperienced to reach contracts with the hotels. "He's always been 'rah rah' and all of that stuff, but never really had sat at the table to take full responsibility for bargaining," Rutledge said.

He also said Gill has denied repeated attempts by Rutledge to help him out in negotiations.

"That's really nice of him to be so charitable," Gill countered. "There has been a concerted, protracted and continuous effort to obstruct my administration from the start."

Just months after Gill won the election, board members asked the international to place the union in trusteeship, saying that Gill was not working with them or listening to shop stewards.

But Gill said the international's move has nothing to do with him, but rather the fact that the local simply has not moved forward with the contracts.

"As far as I'm concerned, no one is alleging I've done anything wrong," he said. "I don't have a problem defending or running on my record."

If a trustee is appointed, Gill would have the right to appeal, though he declined to say if he would. Both Gill and Rutledge indicated they would probably run again once a trustee steps down.

"I'm not giving up. We've only begun," Gill said. "We never had a fair shot at this."

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