Veteran UE Organizer, Dies
|Melvin Womack proclaims the results of
the representation election at GHR Foundry in Dayton, Ohio in 1965 to Local 765 members.
Melvin L. Womack, a retired UE international representative with a larger-than-life presence in two districts, died
In the 1950s Womack went to work for Union Switch and Signal in Swissvale, where he became an active member of UE Local
On March 8, 1961, he joined the UE staff as a field organizer — and immediately became embroiled in organizing campaigns
in metalworking and electrical equipment shops in the Pittsburgh area.
A representation-election victory at Pittsburgh Metal Processing in June 1961 added that workforce to the Local 623
membership. Although the United Auto Workers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers had both failed to organize the
Gibson Electric Co., an in-shop campaign assisted by Field Org. Womack produced a 45-32 victory for UE in September 1961. He assisted new
UE Local 642 through its 45-day strike and negotiations for a first contract.
The Steelworkers tried and failed several times to organize Lawrenceville Screw; workers at that shop joined Local 623 in
1962, as did workers at B&K Tool and A. Aardvark Machine & Tool in 1963, with the assistance of Field Org. Womack.
The aggressive young organizer soon came to the attention of other unions. In 1963, Womack wrote to Dir. of Org. Robert
Kirkwood with a report that the IUE had encouraged him to defect to their ranks — and to bring locals with him. Meanwhile, victories
at three other western Pennsylvania shops 1963-1964 contributed to the growth of District Six.
Womack’s first four years on staff served as an apprenticeship for the challenging work he faced in Ohio, then part of
Dayton’s big GHR Foundry, employing close to 1,000 workers, had been represented by UE until 1956, when the Steelworkers
came in. GHR workers soon recognized their mistake, as working conditions and union democracy steadily eroded. They went through repeated
elections between 1958 and 1964 in attempts to undo the error.
UE won the 1958 election; the Steelworkers made a successful challenge. The Labor Board then scheduled a new election. The
UE NEWS reported: "the entire city turned the heat on the GHR workers. Racial antagonism was fanned between white and Negro
workers. Money was passed out freely by the Steelworkers and the liquor flowed freely."
The second election was a dead-heat. The Steelworkers captured a small majority in the third election. Field Org. Womack
came to Dayton in 1964. Then came a fourth election in September 1964, and UE prevailed, 374-331. The Steelworkers filed objections, and a
fifth election was scheduled for Jan. 27, 1965.
As the UE NEWS reported, Organizer Womack "found men who had been in UE before and wanted their old union
back. He found men who had helped bring the Steelworkers in and now were anxious to get them out. And he found men now recently hired who
knew only that although they paid dues they had no union worthy of the name."
In the last category was a young man named Fred Brown, who still remembers the morning in 1964 when the door bell
rang and he found Mel Womack outside. Two days later, Brown opened his home to 20 co-workers and a meeting with the union organizer.
"UE Organizer Womack was welcomed into hundreds of homes as he came to find out what were the conditions the men wanted corrected
after the expected UE victory. The Negro-white antagonism that the Steelworkers had fostered to preserve their corrupt and incompetent
rule dissolved in the fight to bring back the old union," the UE NEWS reported.
UE won the January 1965 election 520-312. GHR Foundry workers formed UE Local 765, and went on to successfully negotiate a
contract through six months of intensive negotiations, with the help of Field Org. Womack. This important victory contributed greatly to
the reestablishment of UE District Seven later that year.
Womack continued working in Ohio. Under Womack’s guidance, new UE members established Local 766 in 1966 at National
Foundry and Furnace in Dayton, followed by Local 767 in 1967 at Antioch College in Yellow Springs. Womack faced another major challenge
when the UAW tried to raid the UE local at GHR in 1968.
He was appointed International Representative effective Jan. 1, 1969. In the 1970s he worked to continue to expand the
union in District Seven while assisting the locals he helped to establish.
Dir. of Org. Hugh Harley had occasion to write a congratulatory message to Womack on Dec. 26, 1979: "That was
an extraordinary job you did nailing down and holding on to Moran Paint (Local 766) in the face of the joint company-Upholsterers attack.
No one else on the UE staff could have done it — at least not with the style you showed."
Womack was active as a delegate to successive conventions of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists in the 1970s.
In the 1980s, Womack came home in the Pittsburgh area. He assisted his local union, Local 610, in its 205-day strike
against company takeaways and ultimately successful negotiations.
ADVICE AND GUIDANCE
Mel Womack retired in 1992, after 31 years on the UE staff. He was honored in February of that year at the District Six
Council meeting. Dir. of Org. Ed Bruno, District Pres. Daniel Smith and Intl. Rep. Marion Washington recognized
Womack’s many achievements.
Many convention delegates knew Mel Womack chiefly, if not solely, for his performance as "Chairman of the
Arrangements Committee" at most conventions from 1985 through 2001. His sudden death less than a week before the start of the 2002
convention came as a particular shock.
But it is his advice and guidance that countless staff and rank-and-file leaders will recall and value. "Everyone in
my old local loved him, depended on him," recalls Fred Brown.