We are organizing in tough times, economic times that make our organizing harder and more necessary at the same time," said Dir. of Org. Bob Kingsley in a report to the Convention that emphasized the difficulty, urgency and hopefulness of organizing.
Kingsley and delegates offered perspective on "Organize the Unorganized: The UE National Organizing Plan," which gained the Convention’s endorsement. Delegates heard from some of the union’s newest members and leaders of recent struggles.
Kingsley examined the balance sheet of the 1990s for working people and found it wanting: growing inequality, as workers’ incomes lost ground and the big bosses rewarded themselves with a 531 percent pay increase, he observed. The shift in wealth is due to the labor movement’s "power outage," said Kingsley — union membership has fallen from 30 percent to 13 percent of the workforce in just a generation. "The less we are organized, the more we are going to be exploited," he declared.
We organize to gain power, for justice, dignity and respect, Kingsley said. And there’s another basic reason — to ensure the organization’s future and its strength, he said.
The financial plan proposed by the union’s national leadership will provide UE with sufficient resources to keep on fighting, he said.
Kingsley reminded delegates that approaching half of the union’s locals were organized in just the last 10 years. Had the resources not been made available then, "half the people you see here today would not be here."
The good news, Kingsley said, is that a combination of new members reaching first contracts and coming directly into dues-paying status offset those membership losses. "That means we ended the year with just about the same number of members as we started," Kingsley said — adding that the "miracle" of the 1990s was the union’s ability to hold the line against declining membership levels through organizing. UE has the same number of members today as in 1992, in contrast to other industrial unions which experienced huge membership losses.
The 1990s miracle was achieved by a hard-working staff and the contributions of volunteer organizers. In the past year more than 200 members from some 40 locals assisted in organizing. Dir. of Org. Kingsley asked the volunteers present to stand; their contributions were acknowledged with a round of applause.
Greater membership assistance in organizing will be needed in the year ahead; the plan calls for organizing schools and Regional Organizing Committees (ROCs), he pointed out. With lost-time costs split 50/50 by local unions and the national union, the ROCs would consist of UE activists who would develop and work on regional organizing plans and recruit co-workers, Kingsley explained.
In reviewing the work of the past year, Kingsley noted that there are nearly 700 new members in the ranks of statewide UE Local 150 in North Carolina, who came into the union as a result of the union’s "dignity" campaign in state Department of Health and Human Services facilities since March. With more than 1,000 members, Local 150 is now one of 10 largest locals in UE, with great potential for further growth, said Kingsley. Further, UE successfully concluded six first contracts covering 1,000 workers at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, two bargaining units employed by Grafton County (New Hampshire), GATX, Glastic Corp. and Niagara LaSalle.
Organizers are engaged in a broad search for new campaigns, reaching out to 300 workplaces, more than 200 of them in the industrial sector, Kingsley said. These included sister shops in the GE, Rockwell, Consolidated Containers, and Freudenberg chains, and cooperative work with the California Nurses’ Association, the International Federation of Chemical, Energy and Mine Workers (ICEM), Mexico’s Authentic Labor Front (FAT) and Japan’s National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenroren).
UE remains locked today in three first-contract struggles, Kingsley said. He reviewed the tough fight to achieve agreements covering hundreds of new UE members at The Electric Materials Company (TEMCO), Berlin Health and Rehabilitation, and ISSI, and appealed to delegates to send messages of protest to the bosses of the three companies (note: for the latest developments in any of these struggles, use our search page).
Kingsley concluded by declaring that the hope found in UE’s historical resilience and bedrock principles will see the union through this "time of testing."
Delegates rose to their feet for a standing ovation as a large Local 150 contingent proceeded to the stage. New UE members Annie Dove, president of the chapter at the O’Berry (mental retardation) Center, and William Newsome, president of the chapter at the Cherry psychiatric hospital, outlined for delegates the union’s progress since March and the issues around which their co-workers are organizing. North Carolina’s Health and Human Services facilities are "like a sleeping volcano, waiting to erupt," Newsome said.
The week before, the independent union representing staff of the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children voted to affiliate to UE as Local 613. Delegates met representatives of the newest UE local: Pres. Norm Yeargers, Vasu Babu and Treas. Paul Weber. Describing the staff’s work and the school’s high standards responsible for the facility’s recently achieved status as a "blue-ribbon" school, Yeargers observed, "Only one union was able to meet our high standards — UE." The staff had formerly belonged to the American Federation of Teachers, Yeargers said. Teachers and nurses felt out of touch with that union and disaffiliated some years ago. "We are proud to be members of UE," he declared.
Local 1004 Pres. Judy Hice recounted the tactics, including ribbons, buttons, postcards, candlelight vigil, picketing, and finally, a strike notice, that achieved a first contract with Henry Mayo Hospital. The agreement includes a union shop provision and advance notice of changed work schedules, along with other improvements.
‘GLAD TO PART OF UE’
Local 1166 Vice Pres. Patrick Grant reminded delegates that GATX Logistics workers had to go through two representation elections before facing their own tough fight for a first contract. A one-day strike got the attention of GATX’s main customer, General Motors — the strike shut two GM production lines — which led to a settlement. And it was a good contract. Larry Comer, Local 1166, recalled how UE’s militant reputation worried the company and convinced him that this was the right union. "I’m glad to be a part of UE!" he said.
Local 758 Pres. Bill Lally told the story of union organizing at the Glastic Corp. — from an uninspiring Steelworkers campaign in 1981 to the frustrations of overcoming fierce company resistance during the eventually successful UE campaign in 1998 — and the 25-month fight for a first contract that included rallies by UE and its allies in Cleveland, New York and Tokyo and was complicated by the sale of the plant. Finally, last November Glastic workers overwhelmingly ratified a first contract that includes the union shop and 100 percent company-paid health insurance for the agreement’s term. "We couldn’t have done it without the support of all of you," Lally said.
Delegates were on their feet, clapping, as Karen Hardin, Local 758 chief steward, sang the "Ballad of Fred;" to the tune of the "Beverley Hillbillies" theme, it’s a wicked satire on a boss who vowed he’d never sign a contract with UE. (He didn’t: the new owners canned him.)
‘STRONG IN OUR FIGHT’
The members of new Local 254 have made the front page of Vermont’s major newspaper several times, most recently on Labor Day. And no wonder — they are the first nursing home workers in Vermont and the first in the CPL/REIT chain in the United States to win a union election. The Canadian-based corporation has hired one of the most notorious U.S. unionbusting law firms to wipe out the union. Local 254 members — 120 workers, nurses aides, kitchen aides and others — are making headlines by pressing their fight for a first contract in two nations and by calling public attention to the scandal of understaffing in Vermont nursing homes.
"We have done lots of things to put pressure on the company," reported Local 254 member Crystal Breere. "We have picketed other nursing homes, the home office, sent post cards and put up house signs all over Vermont," she said. "We still don’t have first contract," Breere declared, "but we are strong in our fight."
Mick Patrick, a Local 684 steward and negotiating committee member, gave delegates an update on the ongoing, 21-month-long struggle for a first contract at TEMCO: the company is on trial for more than 50 unfair labor practice charges but is still violating workers’ rights — and workers are still fighting back. "I ask for your aid in accomplishing our goal," Patrick said, "not just to help my shop, but to help others, too."
Delegates offered their comments on the organizing plan. Ray Pompano, Local 243, wondered why only 25 percent of field staff currently have organizing as their primary assignment. "We have a wonderful resolution," commented Doug Whitcomb, District Two. "Now we have to find ways of actually putting it into effect." John Lambiase, District Six, said organizing victories will depend on membership participation, adding that he looked forward to the success the union would enjoy the day when staff assisted the members in organizing, instead of the reverse. John Thompson, Local 690, spoke as someone fired during a tough organizing campaign in stressing the necessity of members building the union. "It can be done if we work together," declared Laverne Ollison, Local 1193. Barbara Prear, Local 150, counseled that the union should be open to new approaches to organizing.
John Lambiase and Barbara Prear served as co-conveners of the Organizing Committee.
[Note: this story is an edited version of the one which appeared in the October, 2001 edition of the UE News].
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