Henry Tamarin, a ‘warrior’ for working people, dies at 77

He was president of Local 1 of the Unite Here union, winning strong contracts while increasing membership.

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Henry Tamarin discusses a five-year collective bargaining for lunch workers at the Chicago Public Schools in 2012.

Henry Tamarin in 2012

Sun-Times files

Over Labor Day weekend 20 years ago, Henry Tamarin met his greatest test as a union leader.

Emotions were running high. Mr. Tamarin was ready to lead his members into a citywide hotel strike. Then-Gov. George Ryan, concerned about a strike’s impact on tourism and state finances, mediated and the union “stopped the clock” upon the contract’s expiration, delaying a walkout as bargaining continued amid shouts and curses.

By Monday, Mr. Tamarin had extracted the deal he could bring to 7,000 members. Housekeepers, then getting $8.83 an hour, got a 37% wage increase over four years and the cost of family health care dropped from $85 to $30 per month, where it still sits today. Members rejoiced and gave Mr. Tamarin a nickname, “Tamarindo,” that stuck. Today, housekeepers earn around $23 an hour in Chicago.

“He was awesome. He turned our union around. He was a strong fighting machine,” said Tawanda Murray, a concessions worker at the United Center and a 28-year member of the union Tamarin led, Unite Here Local 1.

Mr. Tamarin, who was president of Local 1 from 2001 to 2013, died Friday at his home in New York City, said his son Nate Tamarin. He said his father suffered from pancreatic cancer. Mr. Tamarin was 77.

He arrived in Chicago in 1999 as an appointed trustee of Local 1, with an assignment to clean it up. Media accounts from the time said the local was broke, corrupt and more concerned about political influence than helping members. Murray said the union had a habit of negotiating extra-long, 10-year contracts that Mr. Tamarin ended as soon as he could. With the international union’s support, he straightened out the finances and threw out the old guard.

A native of Brooklyn who favored plain talk and a good laugh, even for jokes at his expense, Mr. Tamarin meshed well with the Chicago labor scene and was skilled at firing up workers, some of whom had never seen their local’s leader before.

“He was a president who led the way by defending our contracts, keeping speech free, sitting down in the streets and getting arrested. We were transfixed,” said Karen Kent, who succeeded Mr. Tamarin as head of the local, now with about 16,000 workers across 100 businesses in the hospitality sector.

“He was always ready to get in the mix, to take the struggle to the next level and challenge our limits,” Kent said in a message to union members. “He was bold and tough and always measuring where the workers were willing and ready to go, and then showing them the way forward.”

Local 1 today is known as one of the strongest unions in its field. It used its influence to get Bally’s to sign a labor peace agreement for its casino, which in turn helped persuade the City Council to grant it a license over other applicants who hadn’t come to terms.

Nate Tamarin said his father showed a devotion to social justice as a young man, starting as a community organizer in Connecticut and helping union workers at Yale University before joining Unite Here, formerly the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union. He said his father attended Earlham College, graduated from the University of Wisconsin and was always proud that he attended Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.

With the union, Mr. Tamarin became a problem solver, fixing troubled locals, including New York’s Local 100. “One of the hallmarks of his career was delivering an incredible contract for people,” Nate Tamarin said.

Kent and Nate Tamarin both said Mr. Tamarin tried never to personalize contract disputes or become permanently bitter because everything would get settled and there still had to be dialogue with the opposing side.

But that didn’t keep Mr. Tamarin from expressing his views fiercely. During a fraught bargaining session for the 2002 hotel deal, Mr. Tamarin agreed to delay health benefits until two months after a worker was hired. At the last minute, the employers wanted four months. Exasperated, Mr. Tamarin shouted, “Two, two” and held up two middle fingers to the hotel negotiators, according to an account in the Chicago Tribune magazine. He got it.

Away from union affairs, Mr. Tamarin doted on his three grandchildren and enjoyed long talks with his two sons, Nate and Nick. He loved fly fishing, annual vacations on Cape Cod and mystery novels, even re-reading some when he couldn’t remember how they turned out. He was divorced twice.

In a Facebook post, Nate Tamarin said, “He lived the last year of this life with the knowledge his time was limited, so he went fishing, from New York to Argentina; traveled to Paris and Provence; ate meals at his favorite restaurants; visited with friends and kibitzed on the phone with well-wishers; and spent time with his family. He knew exactly the way he wanted to spend the time he had remaining.”

The Chicago Federation of Labor’s executive board adopted a resolution this week memorializing Tamarin as a “warrior for better wages and working conditions who dedicated his entire life to fight for working women and men.”

No services are planned, although Local 1 said it expects to schedule a memorial in October.

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