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UE District One
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UE members exercise their rights at a downtown Philadelphia demonstration in 1951.

What makes UE unique? One good reason is the way UE came into existence. Organized from the bottom up, the national union grew out of a coalition of rank-and-file workers already self-organized, already in motion. No where was this more true than in District One, the early heartland of UE strength and struggle.

Philadelphia-area machine tool workers organized their own rank-and-file union, later to become UE Local 155, in December 1933.

Workers employed by the Philadelphia Storage Battery Co. (Philco) in 1933 organized, struck, and gained a signed contract from the major radio manufacturer. Their union received a "federal union" charter as a local directly affiliated to the American Federation of Labor.

Machinists at the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) took the lead in organizing the company’s huge plant in Camden, N.J. Workers at Westinghouse’s South Philadelphia Works were also organizing themselves; they received AFL Federal Labor Charter 18872 in 1933.

The federal unions in the radio industry and machine workers in the Philadelphia area and other manufacturing centers began meeting together in 1934 to press the AFL to charter an industrial union for the entire unorganized electrical manufacturing industry. But the AFL, dominated by craft unions, refused the demand for one union that would represent all electrical and radio workers regardless of craft or skill. Electrical and radio workers took matters into their own hands, organizing UE in March 1936.

The choice of 26-year-old James Carey as president of the new union says much about the importance of the Philadelphia shops to the organization. A Philco worker, Carey had been part of the successful struggle for recognition and a contract. The union in Philco’s Radio Set plant became UE Local 101; the union in Philco’s Radio Parts plant became UE Local 102.

The independent union at the big RCA plant affiliated to UE as Local 103. RCA refused to bargain, sparking a bitter, four-week strike in the summer of 1936 that tested the new union’s capacity for survival. The union won.


Meanwhile, the first meeting of UE District One had taken place May 21, 1936 in Philadelphia. Albert Newcomb of Local 102 was elected chairman. Delegates came from six locals — 101, 102, 103, 104, 105 and 106. They talked a lot about the importance of continuing the self-organization that brought them this far, and adopted a resolution calling on the National office and district to concentrate on General Electric, Westinghouse and RCA. They elected a full-time organizer, John Smith of Local 101, and voted him the same salary as a national organizer — $40 a week, and $5 a day for expenses.

On Nov. 7, 1936, the workers at the Westinghouse South Philadelphia Works voted to affiliate with UE as Local 107. Westinghouse refused to recognize the UE or the newly enacted National Labor Relations Act, delaying the inevitable until 1941 when the Supreme Court validated the law. Workers continued to build their union, electing shop stewards and forcing the bosses to recognize their grievances, if only in a limited way. Stewards collected dues by hand.

Machine, tool and foundry workers led by James Matles affiliated with UE in 1937, putting "Machine" in the union’s name and giving District One Machine Tool and Die Local 155.

When the U.S. economy lurched back into depression in 1938, UE was hard pressed to hold on. The union came through a bitter four-month strike at Philco, struggled on at Westinghouse and achieved a first national contract with General Electric, including the Philadelphia plant.


UE Pres. Albert Fitzgerald and Sec.-Treas. James Matles join UE members from Districts 1 and 6 at a 1974 protest in Washington.

Organizing by District One and Local 155 help propel UE’s remarkable successes in its early years. By September 1944 UE nationwide represented 686,300 workers at 1,082 plants. Local 155 had collective bargaining agreements with 41 companies, including two still under contract — Laneko Engineering and Tinius Olsen Testing Machines.

Within a few years, continued growth would bring the union to factories where workers would make a substantial contribution to District One, among them Allentown GE (Local 128) and Pennsylvania Pump (Local 141). District One locals could be found in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, as well as throughout eastern Pennsylvania.

With the close of World War II in 1945, UE members nationwide wanted to regain purchasing power lost during the war. UE called for wage increases of $2 a day; the two other big CIO unions, the Auto Workers and Steel Workers, adopted the same bargaining demand. By the end of January 1946 nearly 1.5 million workers were on strike for the same basic demand.

Tens of thousands of UE members in District One took strike action against GE, Westinghouse, RCA and other companies. In Philadelphia, GE responded with police brutality. A march of strikers, led by veterans carrying Old Glory, was attacked by club-wielding cops. "I saw police beating veterans who were attempting to protect the flag," testified a UE staff member, who was himself beaten and arrested. Sixteen UE members faced jail terms of one to five years for assisting the GE strikers.

UE and the other unions prevailed in that strike. Corporate America was shocked by the unions’ strength and widespread community support — and vowed not to let this happen again. Big business responded with the anti-union Taft-Hartley bill in 1947, and a heavily financed campaign promoting anticommunist hysteria and unionbusting.


The committee that led co-workers at Jerrold Electronics in Philadelphia into UE ...

The corporate attack on unions widened already developing cracks within UE unity. President Carey had been replaced in 1941 because he seemed to place ambition ahead of principle. His close associate and former Philco co-worker Harry Block was voted out of office as District One president in 1946. Block had already become a leader of a group calling itself "UE Members for Democratic Action" which earned the condemnation of the union’s General Executive Board for its disruptive actions.

UE locals were raided by other CIO and AFL unions. When the leadership of the CIO failed to take action to preserve solidarity, UE withdrew from the federation. The CIO convention in 1949 "expelled" UE as "communist-dominated." A new union, the IUE, was set up to take UE’s place, with Carey as its president and Block as president of its District One.

The resulting devastation went according to corporate plan. Union brothers and sisters were divided against each other; the union and its leaders were subjected to ferocious attacks by politicians and the press. Long-time Local 155 leader Dave Davis faced jail-time because of his political beliefs; another Local 155 activist faced deportation. Nationally and in District One, UE lost many thousands of members in the corporate-manufactured hysteria. Taking the easy way out, or to advance their own careers, trusted staff and elected officers deserted to the raiders.

New leaders emerged from the rank-and-file to defend and build their union — like a young Ed DeBuest, who stepped forward during the raids to become Local 155 recording secretary. (He again held that office in the early 1990s.) And members were well-served by Max Helfand, elected local organizer in the early 1940s. The first District One convention took place in November 1953 as union members regrouped. Ernest Moyer of Local 128 became district president and Edward Savitsky of Local 107 district secretary.


Westinghouse workers chose to remain strong and united as UE Local 107. They trounced raiders in 1954. Local 107 racked up 5,048 votes, against 1,048 for the IUE, 488 for the Machinists and 23 for "no union."

Local 107 faced another major challenge the following year. UE launched a national strike against Westinghouse on Oct. 25, 1955; a national agreement came 154 days later. But the strike continued for Local 107 members — for four more months. Member unity, large and militant picket lines and a major community mobilization overcame the company’s attempt to impose takeaways and fire 14 union activists.

UE continued organizing despite the disruption. Local 120, Locke Insulator in Baltimore, Md. came into the union in 1950. Wildman-Jacquard workers returned to UE in the late 1950s. Automatic Timing Controls workers joined UE in 1959, Jerrold Electronics workers in 1960. Over the next several years they were followed by workers at a number of Philadelphia area shops, some leaving ineffective, undemocratic AFL-CIO unions.

In 1963, hundreds of workers at the Westinghouse plant in Staunton, Va. organized as UE Local 123; two years later, GE workers in nearby Waynesboro became UE Local 124. Local 121, Clendenin Brothers, was among those chartered between 1962 and 1967, when District One nearly doubled in size.

However, the dynamic Sixties also saw the beginning of the corporate policies of plant closings and job movement that would have such disastrous consequences in the 1980s, 1990s and beyond. Local 125 mounted a broad campaign, with the help of Gov. Milton Shapp, that delayed closure of GE’s Scranton, Pa. plant.

District One’s participation in the civil rights movement of the 1960s exemplifies its continuous attention to social issues. District One members attended the 1963 March on Washington by the busload, raised funds in memory of the children murdered in the Birmingham church bombing, and demonstrated outside Philadelphia’s City Hall in solidarity with civil rights protesters in Alabama.


District 1 members respond to the energy crisis at a 1979 Washington rally.

The Seventies saw further organizational victories as well as changes in leadership. Local 155’s Max Helfand served as District secretary (and as GEB member) from 1958 until 1972. Joe Pagano, Local 155 business agent from 1962 on, became district secretary in 1972. Westinghouse workers Robert Kyler, Richard Williams and Tom Sharkey served as district president in the l960s and 1970s. Another Local 107 member, Nick Onofaro, assumed the presidency in 1976. Former International Rep. Bob Brown was elected district president when Onofaro retired in 1985.

The district — like UE nationally — was devastated by economic restructuring in the Reagan era. A tidal wave of plant closings in the 1980s and 1990s threatened to overwhelm the organization. Long-established UE bastions as well as more recently organized shops shut their doors. The district was particularly hard-hit by the loss of major plants like Westinghouse (Local 107), Black & Decker (former Allentown GE, Local 128) and Genicom (Local 124). During this period, changes in the UE Constitution expanded the district’s boundaries to include all of New Jersey and New York City to the north and North Carolina to the south. New locals like Local 494, Union County Parks, indicated new directions. The district council in 1997 chose Connie Spinozzi as district president, to bring her nearly three decades of experience as a shop worker, union activist and officer to the task of defending and building the union.

As in the beginning, growth has occurred as workers have decided to take control of their own destinies. Independent unions at Gardner Cryogenics (Local 111) and Penske Logistics (Local 112) affiliated with UE because of the union’s rank-and-file democracy. Public-sector workers in North Carolina (Local 150) and Virginia (Local 160) are rejecting second-class citizenship to demand dignity on the job. For them, as it was for Westinghouse and radio workers 65 years ago, UE means a worker-controlled organization dedicated to "a policy of aggressive struggle" for better conditions.


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