"There’s still that great difference between UE and
the rest of the labor movement," says Joe Geraneo. Despite
having faced many challenges, "our
principles are still there — the members run this union."
Geraneo should know. This dedicated organizer first joined
the union in 1937.
He was young then, some might say too young to be working
in a heavy machinery plant. Growing up in a struggling immigrant family,
working was not an option.
Geraneo’s first home was Gaeta, located on the
Tyrrhenian coast between Rome and Naples. "My father brought the
family, my three brothers and my mother," Geraneo says. "We
landed in New York on December 31, 1931."
On New Year’s Day, 1932, the Geraneo family proceeded to
Cambridge, Mass. where they lived for a few years before moving to nearby
SCHOOL OF WORK
At age 14, the young immigrant began working, part-time,
helping to unload trucks for a food service company. Next he was hired by
a hotel as a busboy and dishwasher for about a year. These were the
Depression years — "everything was bad" — and his income
helped support the family. He was still in school — but not for long.
Earning a living came before education.
In March 1937, the young Geraneo went to work at the
Boston plant of Allis Chalmers, a major manufacturer of heavy machinery.
"Because I was only 17 and a half, I had to start out as a helper, I
couldn’t operate any machines, according to the laws, you had to be
18," Geraneo recalls. His foreman gave him permission to learn the
different machines and operations, Geraneo says, "all on my own time,
of course. And I did."
Within a few years Geraneo achieved Sheetmetal B and
welder B certification. "As I worked and as I improved I became a
welder-fitter," he says. Much of his working life was spent as a
Just a month or two after Geraneo started working at Allis
Chalmers, something happened that would have greater impact on his life
than the teenager could have ever imagined. The Allis Chalmers workers
organized into UE. "Amy Newell’s father (Charles Newell)
was the international rep, and we had a card check. (Amy Newell was UE
general secretary-treasurer from 1985-1994.) We got the union in and I
became a charter member of Local 239 in August of ’37."
Unions were no strangers to the Geraneo household. His
brothers and uncles all belonged to the CIO Packinghouse Workers, a union
that engaged in yearly strikes in the Greater Boston area in the late
Thirties. The Geraneo kids would go to the picket line for the excitement
of it all.
Joe became an assistant steward in 1943, the same year he
joined the war effort as a member of the construction unit known as the
Sea Bees, serving in the South Pacific.
(Geraneo was convinced he was going to be sent to Europe.
An officer in Rhode Island questioned the young immigrant about what he’d
do if he found himself on a European battlefield. Geraneo says, "I
started to laugh. I said, ‘Lieutenant, what am I going to do, ask, hey
are you my cousin?’ ")
Geraneo was back in the States in November 1945 and
discharged the following month. He returned to Allis Chalmers in March
1946 — just in time to take part in the historic post-war strike wave.
OF THE BIG STRIKES
In what was nearly a general strike in basic industry, the
CIO’s Big Three — UAW, Steelworkers and UE — struck major
manufacturing employers to recover ground lost during World War II. UE
closed down General Electric, Westinghouse and numerous other electrical
manufacturing and machinery manufacturers to back up a demand for an 18½
cents hourly wage increase. Allis Chalmers was among the companies
With eight plants spread around the country, Allis
Chalmers was the nation’s third largest manufacturer of agricultural
implements and 87th largest manufacturing
enterprise. In addition to farm equipment, Allis Chalmers also produced
machinery for warships, power plants, mining, flour and saw mills, cement
making and building. The company profited handsomely during the war.
UE represented workers at Allis Chalmers plants in
Pittsburgh and Norwood, Ohio, in addition to the Boston plant that
The company’s vehemently anti-union, right-wing
management had no intention of sharing its wartime booty with production
workers. In the business press, Allis Chalmers became the symbol of
corporate resistance to the 1946 strike wave. The UE National officers
accused the company of prolonging the strike "for the sole purpose of
weakening the CIO unions."
IN THE STREETS
a young worker, newly returned from World War II, Joe Geraneo’s
participation in the 1946 UE strike against Allis Chalmers marked
the beginning of his union activism. Above, a scene from that
Meanwhile, in the streets of Boston, newly returned vets
like Joe Geraneo had to battle with police to gain a modest wage increase.
The bosses at the Boston plant bombarded the 350 strikers
with letters and newspaper ads. The union responded with leaflets and
press releases. "Nobody likes a chiseler," said Local 239,
asking "Why don’t they settle the issues of the strike if they’re
so interested in our welfare?"
Geraneo "kind of took the duties of like a steward,
working for my department while we were on strike. That’s my first
active involvement in the union." He spent 12 to 16 hours a day,
seven days a week on the picketline throughout the seven and a half
"Seeing what happened to us during that strike, not
only in A-C, but all of the unions, how they treated all the veterans when
they come in, and they clubbed us just as hard, they had no respect for
the uniforms at all, then I became real active," Geraneo recalls.
"And that brought forth a bunch of youngsters like myself, we decided
that we were going to work for the union. And we did."
Following the strike, Geraneo became the committeeman for
the 100 or so people working in Building 8. He was responsible for second
and third-step grievances and arbitration. And he participated in the 1947
negotiations, when Local 239 gained 11½ cents and six paid holidays.
With the UE Convention in Boston that year, Geraneo was
among the officers and stewards who attended as guests, in addition to the
local’s two accredited delegates. In 1948, Geraneo became Local 239 vice
president and represented Boston’s Allis Chalmers workers at the 13th
UE Convention. It was a tragically interesting time to become involved in
UE and the entire CIO were wracked by an increasingly
bitter and divisive debate over the future of the labor movement. The CIO
leadership, which favored accommodation with big business and the Truman
Administration, encouraged internal opposition to the UE leadership, who
advocated aggressive organizing, rank-and-file democracy and political
independence. Other CIO unions were beginning to raid UE locals.
The 1947 convention, which Joe Geraneo attended as a
guest, ordered the dissolution of the factional movement headed by former
UE President (and CIO Secretary) James Carey. The 1948 convention,
which Geraneo attended as a delegate, considered a motion condemning Carey
for his factionalism and attacks on his union before an anti-labor
Congressional committee. After a lengthy and rancorous debate, the
resolution was adopted.
Geraneo and a majority of delegates also voted to condemn
the raids by CIO unions on UE locals. The 1948 convention broke with the
CIO leadership by refusing to endorse the Democratic presidential nominee,
The 1949 convention was more divisive yet, with Carey’s
followers already planning to launch a new union if they failed, as
expected, to gain control of UE. "And that’s when I first saw the
break-up of a real militant union," Geraneo says sadly.
Geraneo and a majority of delegates again condemned CIO
raiding and voted to withhold UE’s per capita payments to the CIO unless
the raiding and interference with UE’s internal affairs stopped.
The young delegate had his share of fights. Local 239
Pres. Joseph Smith, although dying of cancer, insisted on traveling
to Milwaukee for the convention. He spent much of his time in his hotel
room. Leaving the convention floor to check on his ailing president,
Geraneo was outraged to discover "two finks, trying to get Joe
[Smith] to sign some kind of paper. I threw them out of the room."
Soon after, Geraneo was passing the hat for strikers, at
the direction of District Two Pres. Paul Seymour. One Careyite told
Geraneo, "I’m not going to give anything to those [expletive] Reds.
You guys are a bunch of bastards." Geraneo — never a large man —
grabbed the offending delegate, pulled him across the table, and, as he
puts it, "whacked him."
The disgruntled delegates contributed to the strikers’
aid but didn’t come back. The day after the convention, the Careyites
called for a new union. The CIO convention, meeting a few months later,
obliged them by formally expelling UE and 10 other unions, and creating
the IUE — with James Carey as president — to take UE’s place.
Geraneo is quick to point out that while the CIO
convention might have taken formal action to expel UE, his union had
already withdrawn, thanks to his vote, and those of other rank-and-file
One of the expelled unions, the Farm Equipment workers,
voted to affiliate with UE — which meant that UE now represented workers
at the Allis Chalmers plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, too. But the creation
of the IUE, premised on the destruction of UE, meant losses. UE lost the
big Allis Chalmers plant in Pittsburgh to the UAW, and the Norwood, Ohio
plant to the IUE.
In November 1949, just after the IUE was set up, Pres.
Carey sent a telegram to Allis Chalmers telling the company not to bargain
with UE. Since the IUE didn’t have any members, the company did the
Carey group the favor of petitioning the Labor Board for an election.
As president of Local 239 since the death of Joe Smith,
Geraneo led the fight in 1950 to keep UE in the Boston Allis Chalmers.
Sentiment for UE was so strong that both the IUE and an AFL union withdrew
from the election — an election which UE won 320-6.
At the request of Dir. of Org. James Matles,
Geraneo traveled throughout the Midwest, trying to rally Allis Chalmers
workers to UE.
Geraneo, "personable young president of UE Local
239," was recognized in the early 1950s as "Leader of the
Month" in the New England UE District Bulletin. A member of
the District Two executive board since 1950, Geraneo "has always been
a live wire UE member." The newsletter noted his participation in
legislative meetings and hearings in Boston and Washington, attendance at
conventions and district council meetings and active role in the Allis-Chalmers
UE Locals Council.
Unfortunately, the relationship between the "live
wire member" and his union were about to start a long hiatus.
Five years of unrelenting anti-communist hysteria,
well-publicized attacks on UE staff and leadership, and the loss of key UE
plants in District Two and nationwide began to take its toll inside the
Boston Allis Chalmers plant. Add to that the personal betrayal of three
key union members, and the result was the narrow loss to the IUE in 1955.
"We should never had lost the election," Geraneo says.
Making matters worse, the UE-Allis Chalmers locals in
Indiana and Iowa had pinned their fate on the outcome of the Boston vote.
Soon after they left UE for other unions.
"We lost the election by a handful of votes,"
Geraneo says. "I could count the votes on my hand. I went outside,
and I went and cried."
Along with his loyalty to the union, Geraneo had personal
concerns. The FBI and state legislative investigating committees had their
eyes on him. Geraneo was all-too aware that other foreign-born UE leaders
were under threat of deportation; some had actually been deported. He had
a wife and four young children. But he didn’t buckle.
And now he was a member of a union he detested. The
feeling was mutual. "I was never active," Geraneo says,
"because no matter what I did or whatever I said, every time I went
to the meeting, it was, ‘[expletive] commies are here.’"
But a funny thing happened. Given the abysmal record of
the IUE local leadership on grievances, some of Geraneo’s co-workers
began to wonder out loud if maybe he wouldn’t consider getting more
involved. Geraneo wasn’t sure. He didn’t want to give the IUE the
credit. He asked UE leader Paul Seymour. "He said, ‘Well, Joe, if
you do that,’ he says, ‘you won’t give the IUE credit, you’re
doing it for the people you work with.’ So I says, ‘okay.’"
So just five years after the raid, the former
"[expletive] commie" was now IUE Local 239 vice president.
After four years as vice president, Geraneo decided to a
take a chance — and was elected local president. He got a perverse
pleasure from attending IUE conventions in the 1960s, watching with
amusement fistfights between the union’s top leaders and the shocked
reaction to his presence from ex-UEers.
Geraneo particularly recalls the bitterly contested IUE
presidential election in 1964. The election was by mail-in ballot. Geraneo
received two ballots, one at home and one at the local. Apparently so did
a number of other local officers presumed to favor James Carey over
challenger Paul Jennings. The Labor Board overturned the election. (Geraneo,
for the record, voted just once.)
Geraneo suffered a heart attack in August 1965; he was out
of the shop on workers’ compensation for two years. His doctor
recommended that he avoid the stress of union politics for a couple of
years. Reluctantly, Geraneo agreed. He eventually ran for office again,
and lost. "And then the plant closed, and that was the end of the IUE,"
The welder wasn’t long out of work. He found a job at a
non-union plant that produced complex centrifuges used in the petroleum,
food and chemical industries. And he found substandard conditions — and
a group of workers anxious to do something about them. They wanted to join
a union but didn’t know where to go. Geraneo did.
In less than three weeks nearly three-quarters of the
workforce signed UE cards. The company, the Swedish-based conglomerate
DeLaval, responded with a fiercely anti-union campaign.
The company imposed compulsory overtime, forcing UE
supporters to work 58 hours a week. When Geraneo produced letters from
doctors explaining he had a heart condition and was not allowed to put in
those long hours, the company suspended him.
But instead of scaring the DeLaval employees, the company’s
conduct reinforced their union convictions. And they took up a collection
to aid Geraneo.
A barrage of red-baiting leaflets didn’t work either.
"It was a far cry from the effect this kind of slander had 20 years
ago," Geraneo said then.
WISH AND MY DREAM’
DeLaval Separator workers voted 26-14 for UE on Oct. 3,
1974. Two days later, Geraneo was back at a District Two Council meeting
to declare, "This has been my wish and dream for 20 years — to come
back to the UE."
The IUE was run from the top down, "and there was
nothing us rank-and-file members could do about it," Geraneo told the
council meeting. "I longed to somehow get back into the UE, because
it’s militant and democratic."
Not surprisingly, Geraneo served on the negotiating
committee. The National union sent "help" in the form of two
newly hired organizers who were there as much for training as assistance.
Genl. Sec.-Treas. James Matles told Geraneo, "I’m going to send you
two nice young fellows, Joe. Take care of them." They were Field
Organizers Mike Eisencher and Ed Bruno, who later became UE
director of organization; he’s now the Labor Party’s New England
Geraneo became president of amalgamated UE Local 262 and
again represented Boston area workers at National conventions and District
Two Council meetings.
DeLaval Separator closed in June 1977. Once again Geraneo
was not unemployed long. The welder found his way into a shop represented
by the International Association of Machinists. "After the first year
I became a steward, then the committeeman in that shop, and then
negotiated two contracts for them, before I retired in ’84,"
In January 1985 he joined the UE staff. And he couldn’t
be happier, working with the UE shops in eastern Massachusetts, assisting
Intl. Rep. Harry Authelet, and helping out his no-longer-young
friend Ed Bruno with the Labor Party. From time to time, he’s pleased to
again represent Local 262 at National conventions, as he did this year.
As of this writing, he’s considering a kind of
semi-retirement that would bring him into the Local 262 office less
frequently, effective Jan. 1.
Geraneo regards the current UE officers to be as dedicated
to the union’s policies as the famous men he met in the Forties.
"As long as UE maintains its principles, the leadership will still be
the same." He reckons it would take a constitutional change for that
to happen, and vows: "As long as I’m alive, the Constitution is not
going to be changed!"
This story is a slightly-edited version of the one
which appears in the October, 2000 edition of the UE News in print.