We have met the UE Convention and it’s awesome!" is
not what Oliver Hazard Perry said following the Battle of Lake
In dinors (that’s not a typo), bars and workplaces, in the papers and on TV, and in and out of the downtown Avalon Hotel, the 65th UE Convention electrified Erie.
National conventions are not a daily occurrence in this Great Lake-port city. And this one, UE’s first in Erie, was no ordinary convention.
The UE Convention delegates assembled here from around the country grabbed attention by:
Delegates deliberated on more than 30 resolutions, responded to speakers of substance, acted on constitutional amendments and elected UE’s national officers and trustees. They also pigged out at a pig roast and boogied at a banquet.
Re-elected for another term are General President John Hovis, General Secretary-Treasurer Robert L. Clark and Director of Organization Robert B. Kingsley. Trustees are Patrick Rafferty, Local 506, Jim Lemke, Local 1111, and Dorothy Johnson, Local 299; alternates are Craige Turner, Local 120, and Virginia Garrette, Local 767.
Delegates came from a variety of workplaces, reflecting the union’s growing occupational diversity. Social workers from Iowa, school bus drivers from Ohio, health care workers from California, North Carolina and Vermont, to name a few, mixed with workers from electrical manufacturing, machine and metalworking and plastics factories from coast to coast.
Among those present were representatives of some 1,600 workers in 11 different bargaining units organized in the previous year, as well as representatives of several independent unions who came as guests.
Genl. Pres. John Hovis captured the pride delegates and new members have in their union: "Member for member, dollar for dollar, UE is the most progressive and hardest working union in this country today." In his opening remarks, the union president declared, "UE may not be the largest union in the country, and we sure aren’t the richest. But we have a firm belief in what we are doing and the goals we are trying to accomplish. And we will survive as long as we work together."
The year 2000 is significant for UE, Hovis said, not only because of its first convention in Erie, but also because of the self-liquidation of the IUE — a union created with the primary purpose of destroying and replacing UE. As a result of merger with the Communication Workers of America, the IUE will be out of business after 50 years, effective Oct. 1. The IUE was set up by a discredited former UE president, with the backing of big business and politicians.
"Why do we celebrate our 65th Convention with high spirits, looking to the future, while the IUE with more than 100,000 members and total assets of over $36 million, decides they can no longer make a go it after 50 years?" Hovis asked. The IUE leadership determined it couldn’t survive.
‘MORE THAN DUES’
While money’s an important factor, the UE president said, "there’s something more to a union than collecting dues." There are also deeply rooted beliefs, dedication, a broader view, "one that goes beyond the daily routine of handling grievances and arbitrations." Hovis continued, it’s also about being able to have an impact on the labor movement and society, regardless of your size. It’s having a reason to exist, something that sets you apart that gives you the will to survive."
"UE is not in immediate danger of disappearing or having to actively seek a partner or merger," the union leader asserted. "But as you all know, we aren’t immune from the loss of membership caused by plant closings, downsizings, job combinations, privatization, globalization and other management schemes."
But instead of packing it in, UE has invested more time and resources to advance the cause of rank-and-file unionism — through expanded education programs, organizing, political action, Hovis noted.
‘UE KEEPS GOING AND GOING’
"Like the much publicized Energizer bunny, UE just keeps going and going and going," Hovis said. Through it all, UE has maintained its original basic principles. The union’s dedication to democratic practices have been crucial to union’s survival, Hovis emphasized.
"Our goal is to build a progressive, militant organization that can help win economic justice and political freedom for working people around the world," he said.
In negotiations, employers learn that "UE members have both the knowledge and the determination to win — if not everything they may have wanted, always more than the boss wanted to give."
"We belong to a one-of-a-kind union, a special organization with a special place in history and what we hope will be a special place in the future," Hovis said. To make sure the UE avoids the IUE’s fate, Hovis told delegates, "It’s our duty — yours and mine — to take the collective actions necessary to carry on the work so many before us began."
Delegates received a straightforward report on the union’s finances from Genl. Sec.-Treas. Bob Clark. With the aid of charts and graphs projected on a screen, Clark explained that the projections of the UE’s five-year plan are largely on target, with one exception.
Although UE organizing has been successful, the numbers fell short of the goal set in the five-year plan. "The boss and the law — that’s why," Clark said. The real obstacles faced by workers trying to organize on the one hand and plant closings on the other have hurt the union’s ability to achieve the optimum membership numbers projected by the plan, he said.
One chart demonstrated the budget proposed to General Executive Board three months ago, enabling the union officer to point out the biggest expenses facing the union (salaries and expenses). This is the first time a budget has been reduced to paper for discussion, Clark pointed out, nothing that continued hard work must go into building the union.
Delegates had their say about the union’s finances. Proposals to transfer $1.3 million from the Strike and Defense Fund to the General Fund and exonerate monies borrowed from the Strike Fund drew a number of delegates to floor mikes with questions and criticism as well as expressions of confidence in the officers and support for UE’s organizing program. The Convention gave its backing to both proposals.
LIKE A JUNKYARD DOG
Delegates took their energy and unity to the streets of the town of North East and the gates of The Electric Materials Co. (TEMCO). Negotiations for a first contract between UE and TEMCO have yielded little progress since they began February 4, following UE's organizing win. The National Labor Relations Board recently cited TEMCO for the firing and suspension of union leaders and for failure to provide necessary information to the union.
Delegates shook hands with TEMCO workers (who were on their lunch break) through the factory fence, roared their disapproval of unionbusting and heard from TEMCO workers and local political leaders. U.S. Rep. Ron Klink, who is challenging incumbent Sen. Rick Santorum, pledged to fight for labor law reform.
Salsa — and salsa dancing — in the Local 506 Hall? The reception inaugurating the mural was "a celebration of diversity like this city’s never seen before," enthused Local 618 Pres. Betsy Potter. Local 506 Pres. David Adams relayed Erie GE workers’ excitement about the project.
The mural electrified the delegates, Local 506 and 618 members, GE retirees and community leaders in the room. Bright and vibrant, big in size and conception, the mural celebrates working women and international solidarity with scenes from U.S. and Mexican labor history.
Muralist Juana Alicia proclaimed that "organizing and art are one and the same movement," making possible the eradication of racism and sexism.
Benedicto Martinez, general coordinator of Mexico’s Authentic Labor Front (FAT), praised the vision of international labor solidarity that inspires the UE-FAT alliance and the mural.
Amy Newell, former general secretary-treasurer, reminded listeners that UE’s interest in "international solidarity was there from the beginning." Cold War politics froze the AFL-CIO into an empty relationship with Mexico’s government-dominated labor federation. As the fight against NAFTA loomed, UE looked for allies — and found an independent, democratic union in Mexico.
SEASONED WITH RAGE
The Retirees Association of General Electric — RAGE — was much in evidence during the convention week. RAGE members prepared and served food at the lakefront picnic/pig roast and turned out for the mural inauguration, Nader speech and discussion on the resolution "UE Retiree Committees — A Wealth of Experience and Activism." When Pres. Hovis announced that RAGE members were present in the hall, delegates arose applauding. RAGE leader and retired Local 506 member Charlie Fry spoke on the resolution, encouraging the creation of retiree organizations in defense of pensioners and for the good of the union. Betsy Potter, Local 618, said her members are proud of RAGE: "They’re a study in organizing."
In her greetings to the delegates, Erie Mayor Joyce A. Savocchio credited UE and Local 506 with helping to move the labor movement and city forward. Paula Madura sang the National Anthem. Rev. Clifton McNair of the Word of Life Center offered a stirring prayer of thanksgiving for a new day and a new era for unions. Local 683 Pres. Charles Tangle was elected sergeant-at-arms.
What’s special about the union is its members, what’s special about Erie is its citizens — and they are often the same people, said District Six Pres. John Lambiase, in welcoming delegates to Erie. He pointed out that the Erie area is home to UE’s largest local and one of the union’s newest in the manufacturing sector. Erie has been a growth area for the union the 1990s, Lambaise said.
"As we turn 65, we are not going to let any boss retire us," Lambiase declared.
[Note: this story is an edited version of the one which appeared in the September, 2000 edition of the UE News].
Next: Stories of Courage and Liberation ->
Home • About UE • Organize! • Independent Unions
• Search • Site Guide • What's New • Contact UE