Championed Westinghouse Workers —
Local 107 Leader, Dies
In his 43 years with Westinghouse, Russell Senkow held virtually every elective office in Local 107. And when the
mammoth Westinghouse turbine plant in Lester closed in 1987, Local 107 Pres. Senkow was the last worker to leave the facility. Senkow
continued to fight for his co-workers; 15 years after the plant’s closure, that struggle ended with Senkow’s death Jan. 23 at age 77.
Senkow was born, raised and educated in Philadelphia. He was already working for Westinghouse, as a tool grinder, when the
United States entered World War II. Senkow enlisted, serving in the U.S. Navy aboard the aircraft carrier USS Antietam.
Westinghouse promised the young worker his old job when his enlistment ended. But when Senkow went back to the plant,
management told him, "no work." He went to the Local 107 union hall where the executive board happened to be meeting. When board
members heard of Senkow’s plight, they rose, put on their coats, and with the young worker in tow, walked the half-mile to the plant and
marched into the Industrial Relations Building. After an all-afternoon meeting with management, Senkow was back on the clock.
"My father decided then and there that he wanted to be part of this organization," says the late union leader’s
son, also named Russell Senkow.
"Over the years he was school by some of the strongest UE men of that era," writes his son; the elder Senkow had
a thirst for knowledge about the union and class struggle. "My dad held three jobs his whole life — his family, his job and his
union. Never did he waver or back down when it came to his family’s honor, his job’s integrity or the principles of his union."
When elected to full-time union positions, he would continue to work full-time in the plant on third shift in order to be
fully aware of developments in the vast factory. (Post-World War II employment at Lester peaked at 9,800, falling to 1,100 by 1984.) Over
the years Senkow learned a number of jobs, leaving Westinghouse as a fitter-tester at the top of the labor grade.
As a union officer, Senkow took part in UE’s national negotiations with the Westinghouse Corp., and as a staunch member
participated in strikes against that corporation, including the 299-day strike in 1955-1956. He walked that picket line carrying a
Senkow carried out the union’s policies in the community as well as in the shop; among other activities, he organized
numerous bus trips to bring workers’ concerns to Washington, fought in the local courts against water and gas rate increases and
picketed supermarkets with the United Farm Workers. His son recalls how in the 1970s the UE leader was arrested in a supermarket for
squishing scab grapes.
Over the years, Senkow represented his local at numerous District One Council meetings and national conventions, serving
on many committees. At his last convention in 1986, with his plant facing closure, Senkow condemned the company’s greed — "that’s
the reason this country is going down the drain," he said — and praised UE’s record of militant struggle. He seconded the
nomination of John Hovis for director of organization at that convention.
When the plant closed in December 1986 after 70 years of production, Senkow stayed on for two more years as Local 107
president to assist the displaced workers and retirees and their spouses. His son recalls how for many years after the home phone would
ring frequently, as former Westinghouse workers called the former business agent/president after receiving a runaround from the company.
Beginning the 1970s, Senkow worked hard to educate himself and his co-workers on the dangers of asbestos, assisted by the
national union and the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health (PhilaPOSH). "I’ve seen a lot of friends of mine
die from asbestos," Senkow told the UE NEWS in a 1987 interview. "We’ve had so many people die of lung problems — so
many it’s hard to believe." Westinghouse made no efforts to inform workers of the hazards. "Never, never did the company say
anything," Senkow said.
The union leader helped arrange free screenings for Westinghouse workers at the Local 107 hall. He traveled the country,
giving depositions on behalf of Westinghouse workers (and their widows) suing the company over asbestos exposure. Even after the plant
closed, Senkow and his former co-workers continued to work to assist and inform workers and the community about the dangers of asbestos
and asbestos-related diseases.
A year after losing his youngest son, Senkow was diagnosed with terminal cancer as a result of asbestos exposure. He was
given six months but fought on for three years, dying on the operating table due to complications from diabetes.
He is survived by his wife, Ann Daniel Senkow, a son, Russell Senkow, sisters Victoria Senkow and Mary
Amblard, and a grandson. Memorial donations may be made to Deborah Hospital Foundation, Box 820, Browns Mills, N.J. 08051.
UE News - 3/02