Star-Bulletin photo of Art Rutledge

Art Rutledge

Union giant
Art Rutledge
dies at 90

He founded the
Hawaii Teamsters and built
the isles' biggest hotel union

Honolulu Star-Bulletin

Setember 23, 1997

Arthur A. "Art" Rutledge, one of the giants of the Hawaii labor movement and a transportation and hotel workers' leader whose prominence grew along with tourism, died last night in Kaiser Hospital at the age of 90.

Rutledge, the founder of the Hawaii Teamsters union and longtime Hotel Workers head, had been hospitalized for a number of ailments. He is survived by a daughter Anna, sons Tony and Arthur Jr., a number of grandchildren and a younger brother, Maurice, who lives in Los Angeles.

Funeral services will be this week, but arrangements have not been completed, union officials said.

Despite his age and many illnesses, Rutledge, whose involvement in Hawaii organized labor dates back to the 1930s, never lost the spunk that made him a force to be reckoned with across the bargaining table and on the picket lines.

The crusty Rutledge, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, was the last of the labor greats who defined the islands' labor movement and forged an empire built on shrewd negotiations and sometimes violent labor disputes.

He always talked about retiring, but it was in 1990 that Rutledge -- hampered by his borderline diabetes, cataracts, heart problems and memory lapses -- decided to slowly close the book on his era. He spent his last few years acting as a consultant to his son Tony, also a labor leader.

Building his labor dynasty with a few hotel workers in the 1940s, Rutledge eventually became the head of the state's largest hotel union, president of the local Teamsters and founder and president of a nonprofit labor organization known as Unity House.

Over the years, his immense influence touched the lives of hotel workers, city bus drivers, hospital employees, truck drivers, movie and television studio drivers and Waikiki beach boys. Union members fondly referred to him as Father, Pops and, in later years, the Old Man.

Rutledge's influence was so expansive that an official who came to open the first National Labor Relations Board office in Hawaii once said to his superiors: "There is no labor movement out here. There is only this man Rutledge running loose."

Born in Poland

Born Avrom Rotlieder in Lublin, Poland, Rutledge came to the United States with his mother when he was 6. He changed his name to give it an Anglican sound soon after the birth of his brother.

Rutledge's father, a woodcarver, returned to Europe when Rutledge was a child, and his mother died when Rutledge was 12, so he and his brother entered shelter homes in Minneapolis.

He began working at the age of 14 as a cabin boy on a ship sailing between Seattle and Alaska.

One evening in 1934, Rutledge noticed a painting of Waikiki on the wall of a Seattle night club. He decided then to move to Hawaii.

He arrived in the islands as a stowaway but was sent back to Seattle to pay a delinquent $500 fine levied against him when he was caught with bootleg liquor by authorities in a Seattle motel.

After his probation ran out, Rutledge returned to Hawaii for good in 1938, living on two 15-cent bowls of saimin a day. By then he had joined the San Francisco chapter of the bartenders' union, and his union organizing began.

In 1939, he became chief officer of Local 5, a post he was to hold for the next 39 years. He later took over a union of workers in the dairy, transit and trucking industries which he put together as Hawaii Teamsters Local 996.

Rutledge worked as a union bartender at the Wonder Bar, the Log Cabin, the White Palace and the Lido. On the eve of World War II in 1941, he led his first successful strike, winning a higher pay rate for bartenders at $5 an hour.

During the war, when unions were suspended, Rutledge continued to fight for the working man and was one of the few to fight for the rights of Hawaii's Japanese Americans, alongside such leaders as John Burns, a police officer who would later become governor.

In 1944, he ran for city and county supervisor and came in last. Four years later he lost in a run for the Territorial House.

Pitted in the early years against management, Rutledge found himself battling deportation.

Rutledge said he had assumed he was an American citizen since his father had been naturalized, but in 1950 he was declared an illegal alien. He first tried to gain citizenship in 1953, but was rejected on the grounds that he was not of good moral character since he falsely claimed he was a U.S. citizen when he illegally entered Hawaii from Canada in 1934.

Prominent Honolulu businessmen came to his defense, and Territorial Gov. Oren E. Long pardoned Rutledge in 1958 for anything he had done up to that time. (Between 1935 and 1952, the vocal Rutledge had been arrested 23 times, mostly on petty harassment charges.)

The deportation orders were eventually reversed and Rutledge was naturalized in 1960.

During World War II, he led the Central Labor Council which helped represent civilian workers at the Pearl Harbor shipyard.

Although strikes were banned during the war, workers organized by Rutledge conducted strikes against Hawaii's dairies, gas stations, Hawaiian Electric Co. and Hawaiian Telephone Co.

In 1952, Rutledge spearheaded a successful walkout against the Matson hotels, resulting in what is considered the first employer-paid medical plan. This paved the way for the eventual creation in 1956 of a trust fund to manage hotel workers' medical benefits.

'A rough, tough guy'

Labor pioneer Harry Bridges called Rutledge "an operator, a maneuverer and a rough, tough guy." Rutledge waged unrelenting warfare against Bridges' union, the ILWU, in the 1960s.

With the death of longtime foe Jack Hall and the retirement of Robert McElrath, the two Hawaii ILWU leaders, Rutledge emerged as the state's most powerful labor leader.

Rutledge's tight rein of union control and image of ruffians in his ranks evolved into what came to be known as Rutledge unionism.

"The history of labor is full of violence. For Christ's sake, before modern labor laws were passed Pinkertons shot strikers in the streets," he said in 1983.

An ardent supporter of notorious Teamsters international President Jimmy Hoffa, Rutledge was subjected to his share of suspicions of organized crime and investigations of mismanagement.

In 1960, the international parent of the Hotel Workers' union suspended Rutledge as president of Local 5, contending that he mishandled about $110,000 in union funds and violated the union constitution.

The international attempted to place Local 5 under a trusteeship, but Rutledge and his membership threatened to revolt and become an independent union. The international dropped its charges and re-established Rutledge as leader.

In 1980, Rutledge was accused in court of paying $10,000 to murder William B. Mookini, a convicted robber who was shot and critically wounded outside a Piikoi Street restaurant in 1974.

A key witness for the plaintiffs later testified that he lied when he told police that Rutledge paid him to kill Mookini. A Circuit Court jury in 1984 acquitted Rutledge.

"I've been through all these things. Pretty soon, it becomes old hat," Rutledge said then.

He was summoned to Washington in 1982 to testify before a Senate subcommittee, which was investigating Rutledge's administration of the Hotel Workers' union prior to his ouster in 1980 and of the Hawaii Teamsters.

A report by the Senate subcommittee issued in 1984 concluded that organized crime exerts "substantial influence" over the Hotel Workers' union, and that Rutledge may have violated his legal responsibilities in establishing and operating Unity House and Unity Council.

"It seems like every time I get in serious trouble," Rutledge once said in 1960, "I'm always alone, and there's never anyone I can turn to in the labor movement."

In fact, people would turn against him. Richard Tam, a lieutenant for Rutledge at the Hotel Workers' union for more than 20 years, and Michael Chambrella, a bus driver with the Teamsters, developed into the thorns in Rutledge's rose bush.

In 1978, Tam headed a slate that toppled Rutledge as head of the Hotel Workers.

Rutledge had opted to run for secretary-treasurer, stepping down as president to let his son Tony run for that seat. But Tam's slate defeated the father-son team and was able to stave off protests from the Rutledges to eventually wrest control in 1980.

Local 5 would return to Rutledge control when Tony defeated Tam in a 1986 election.

Removed from the hotel union, Art Rutledge concentrated his expansion plans with the Teamsters. The Teamsters challenged the United Public Workers in private hospitals for control over hundreds of blue-collar workers.

Despite protests to the National Labor Relations Board by the UPW, Rutledge was able to increase the Teamsters' membership roles with the inclusion of hospital workers from the state's major hospitals, swaying from the UPW more than 1,000 workers.

In the latter years, Rutledge's Teamsters ruled the sets of Hawaii's television and movie studios. Actors and producers would complain of the slow production process because of the unions, especially the Teamsters' drivers.

In the mid-1970s, an obscure Teamster named Michael Chambrella brashly challenged Rutledge for control of that 6,000-member union.

Chambrella would become a perennial opposition candidate in Teamsters elections, winning one disputed election which was overturned and finally taking office in 1995. Chambrella died last year.

In the 1980s, Tam and Chambrella bombarded the Rutledges with legal maneuvers and suits involving the millions of dollars in assets under Unity House Inc.

Unity House -- created in 1951 with dues from members of the Local 5 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union and the Hawaii Teamsters, and boosted in the 1980s by $50 million from the sale of union-owned properties, including a Waikiki hotel -- was Rutledge's dream of a labor temple for union members.

Plenty of lawsuits

A critical 1982 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office said the U.S. Labor Department should have cracked down on Rutledge's Unity House operation. The GAO claimed Unity House was used "as a conduit for moving funds among union locals and several affiliated organizations," in violation of federal laws.

Tam's suit over Rutledge's management of Unity House was dismissed in 1985, but other suits relating to Unity House continued to clog the courts for years.

In 1990, Rutledge passed over the reins of his union empire to his son, Tony.

Art Rutledge was removed as president of Unity House and the Teamsters after courts ruled the elections were improper.

Through the years, Rutledge softened his image. "I just had to put on the image that was necessary at the time. Oh, underneath it all, I guess I was a softy."

"He told me there's a lust for women and a lust for gambling, but the worst lust of all is the lust for power," Tony Rutledge once recalled his father saying. "If you have power, don't abuse it, or you will lose it."

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