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Building Our Union
For the 21st Century

UE Organizing Schools Train Members to Build Their Union!

The members run this union — and with newly-received training, some members are prepared to build it, too.

In recent weeks, some 75 rank-and-file UE members attended five regional organizing schools which combined classroom instruction with practical experience in organizing the unorganized.

With each school linked to one or more organizing targets, union builders had opportunities to bring the UE message to the home of unorganized workers and participate in organizing meetings.

Their work is still producing results.

Organizing School Graduating Class
The graduates and staff of the well-attended Erie, Pa.
organizing school which drew students from three districts

UE Members Find Out
What It Takes to Organize


The Members Build This Union

OVERVIEW

UE members have always been proud of their membership-run union. Now, that pride is reinvigorating UE's oldest tradition ... building the union from the bottom-up through membership involvement. Members have begun learning what it takes to organized by attending UE-sponsored schools, in various locations around the country.
Organizing school participants came from all types of UE workplaces — and they're excited about telling non-union workers that they, too, can win dignity, respect and a voice on the job with UE-style democratic, rank-and-file unionism.
The UE News attended the organizing school held in Vermont, where participants found out what it takes to organize non-union workers — including everything from real-life experiences in talking with unorganized workers to all of the dirty tricks used by bosses to maintain absolute control in their workplaces.
Through it all, the UE members who took part were more than enthusiastic about building their union — while gaining a much broader understanding of the work it takes to build their union and support a cause they believe in.

 

At the Milwaukee Organizing School
Participants in the Milwaukee organizing school contemplate the steps involved in an organizing campaign.

 

In addition to participation in campaigns during the schools, the National union hopes that graduates will initiate campaigns in the months and years ahead, reinvigorating a UE tradition of members building the union.

 

Mapping Home Visits in Vermont
Sharon Frechette and Nomesia Iria plot the route of their home visits in Vermont.

 

 

'The union means a more democratic workplace ... freedom of speech ... collective bargaining ... group of people with a common goal ... a living wage ... benefits ... respect ... solidarity ...  job security'

 

F.A.T. Organizers in Milwaukee
The Milwaukee organizing school gained an international dimension with the involvement of six representatives of Mexico’s independent labor federation, the Authentic Labor Front (FAT). These included three shop leaders from FAT-represented shops in Mexico City and a fired activist from the Echlin-owned Itapsa plant, as well as two organizers from the border region.

 

Where Schools
Were Held:

In Erie, Pa. from April 15 to 19. Thirty-five rank-and-file participants came from 15 locals spread among three districts and four states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.)

In Ottumwa, Iowa from April 19 to 23. Eight participants came from four District 11 locals in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

In Middlebury, Vt. from April 29 to May 3. The six participants came from five District Two locals in Massachusetts and Vermont. Two staff trainees also attended, one of them a former UE chief steward.

Just outside Columbus, in Delaware, Ohio, from May 3 through May 7. The six attendees came from three Ohio locals.

In Milwaukee, Wis., May 13-17. At the only bilingual school, the 24 participants included 18 UE members from eight Wisconsin locals and one Illinois local and six representatives of Mexico’s Authentic Labor Front (FAT).

 

Vermont's Graduating Class and Staff
Organizers and staff at the Middlebury, Vermont school following graduation.

 

 

'The ... visit "tore my heart out, because of the safety issues," said Buterbaugh. The visited worker, who has received a raise of only 25 cents in four years, had lost partial use of his hand because of the inadequate safeguards — and then received a warning because of the accident!'

 

 

Elected local president since attending the school, Scott Buterbaugh has informed his members they can be expected to be asked for assistance in organizing. Buterbaugh has already recruited volunteers.

 

 

Rich Drylie thought the school "was one of the greatest things I’ve seen since I’ve been in UE," despite the long hours, and the disappointment of the occasional wrong address or hostile reception. "Sometimes we had doors slammed in our faces. But it was worthwhile. We were having a great time talking about UE."

 

Declared Chris Falk, "I hope we can help the organizers broaden the cause of UE, the only cause I know of that’s worth this time and effort."

A campaign developed out of the home visits undertaken by participants in the Erie, Pa. school is gathering strength. Back home, school participants are identifying targets and exploring contacts, following the guidelines learned in school.

"We have had a tremendous growth in rank-and-file involvement in organizing in recent years," Dir. of Org. Bob Kingsley told school participants. "We want to take our work to build the union to a new level."

The schools’ goal is creation of a "new group of trained rank and filers prepared to participate in our organizing work in a more effective and fuller way," Kingsley said.

In addition to participation in campaigns during the schools, the National union hopes that graduates will initiate campaigns in the months and years ahead, reinvigorating a UE tradition of members building the union. Kingsley indicated that another result might be some recruitment to the UE staff; currently little more than one-third of UE organizers are drawn from the union’s ranks.

COMMITTED TO UNION

Students came from factories and offices — and out of a bus, construction site, pressroom and toll booth — out of curiosity, for the challenge, out of concern for the unorganized and because of a commitment to their union.

"I feel so good about what the union is doing and I want to share it with other people," said Ed Byard, Local 262 vice president and chief steward at Cole-Hersee in South Boston.

Some came from long-established UE locals, some from newly-organized workplaces. All drew upon their union experience.

"I fell right into this union when I got a job at GE," commented Sue Smock, Local 506 trustee. "I’ve worked at a non-union shop, and I know how you are treated — you have no rights. I wanted to go out and talk to people who were in that same situation."

Mike Schwertz, Local 690 trustee, had been working at Kenson Plastics for two years before UE organized the Warrendale, Pa. plant nine years ago. "I have a lot of respect for UE," he said; it’s a union that sees things the way he does. "UE is about organizing the working people, getting the working people’s voice back."

The organizing schools took place: in Erie, Pa.; Ottumwa, Iowa; Middlebury, Vt. ; Delaware, Ohio; and in Milwaukee, Wis.

The Erie school targeted three manufacturing plants; Vermont trainees visited employees of a richly-endowed private college; the Iowa school sent rank-and-filers to meet the support staff of a community college; the Ohio school targeted a public school district. The Milwaukee school set its sights on two foundries and a lamp plant.

Very much a rank-and-file effort, the Erie school benefited from the assistance of two UE local leaders. Jim Cook, Local 623 president, came out of his Pittsburgh area shop for close to two weeks to assist Field Org. Deb Gornall in finding names and addresses, preparing maps and talking to contacts in unorganized shops. Erie’s Local 683 paid the lost time of Pres. Rich Drylie, who developed spread sheets, helped assemble folders and provided other assistance in advance of the school.

FIRST DAY OF CLASS

To get the full flavor of the project, the UE NEWS visited the Middlebury, Vt. school, which followed the same format and curriculum as the others.

The student organizers received a personal welcome from Dir. of Org. Kingsley, who said the schools took the familiar UE slogan "The Members Run This Union" to "its next logical step — The Members Build This Union." This is, he said, "the theme of everything we are doing this week."

After introducing themselves, participants got an introduction to their organizing target. Employees of a local college have been in contact with UE staff since last summer; staff has been working actively in Middlebury since the first of the year. School participants learned they would be working towards a meeting scheduled for Sunday, the last day of the school. The school is set up to "maximize time to talk to workers in their homes... the only way to really develop organizers is to do it," Kingsley told the volunteer organizers.

In a slide show that followed, Kingsley offered answers to the question "Why organize?" Organizing, he said, is economically, politically and morally the right thing to do. And although organizing is toughest thing we do, Kingsley says, it is possible. He pointed to the more than 100 UE organizing victories in the Nineties; with more wins than losses, the UE record shows it is possible to get the job done.

WHAT’S THIS UNION?

The student organizers were invited to discuss what the union means to them; "What is this thing called a union?"

The union means a more democratic workplace, said Diane Brawn, Local 262. Freedom of speech, collective bargaining and a group of people with a common goal, suggested Peter Amaral, Local 204. A living wage, said Ed Byard, Local 262. Sharon Frechette, Local 234 and Van Vo, Local 274 mentioned benefits. Respect, stressed Nomesia Iria, late of Local 214. Byard cited solidarity, Amaral added job security: "You can’t be fired if the boss is having a bad day." Vo pointed to the lack of favoritism and discrimination. Gael Wakefield, Local 274 saw the union as a problem - solving vehicle.

Instructor Mary McGinn moved the group into a discussion of steps in organizing. Students were asked to map their workplaces, an exercise designed to develop an appreciation of information they would need to gather on their visits to the unorganized. Next came a consideration of workers’ rights under law — and the extent to which bosses can thwart worker organizing. "Boy, I need this!" commented Ed Byard, as McGinn offered one eye-opening fact after another.

Role-playing accompanied tips on home visits. Students were encouraged to be honest, and refrain from confrontation, and reminded that their contacts are building their own democratic UE local. On the other hand, the organizer-trainees were advised, "it’s not just a friendly visit;" the door-knocking had specific goals.

Home visiting began after the first morning of classes.

WHAT AM
I DOING HERE?’

In Erie, Scott "Shaggy" Buterbaugh, Local 692 was feeling more than a little overwhelmed on his first day of organizing school. He’s worked at the Ervite division of Metalade since January 1997, following five months as a temporary employee. Buterbaugh said he attended the school to learn more about the union.

"I looked around this room full of people and I wondered, ‘what on earth am I doing here,’ especially with the role-playing. Then I had to go out and visit people? No way, I had to get out of this!"

But, Buterbaugh admitted, "after the first visit I was hooked!"

Expecting doors to be slammed in his face, Buterbaugh instead found himself speaking to a sympathetic ex-employee of the targeted shop who willingly gave the volunteer organizer directions to others on his list.

The next visit "tore my heart out, because of the safety issues," said Buterbaugh. The visited worker, who has received a raise of only 25 cents in four years, had lost partial use of his hand because of the inadequate safeguards — and then received a warning because of the accident!

LOOKING FOR LEADERSHIP

Org. Dir. Bob Kingsley at the Blackboard
UE Dir. of Organization Bob Kingsley makes a point during an organizing school session.

On their second day of class, McGinn’s students analyzed leadership in the workplace and how to recognize and develop it, and learned the importance of developing a leadership committee during an organizing campaign. With this came a rating system to be applied to the contacts they made on home visits — a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being actively pro-union, 5 being actively hostile.

Referring back to the maps drawn the day before, the student organizers indicated the location of both supervisors and leadership in their own workplaces.

The school considered the tough question ever-present in an organizing campaign: Will I get fired for supporting the union? McGinn pointed out that unorganized workers can be fired at any time; without a union, they have no protection. She and Kingsley explained that workers are fired, in violation of the law, for organizing, although the threat is greater than the actual practice. When workers are fired during a UE campaign, they said, the union backs them up.

Following this class (and those for the next two days), the rank-and-file organizers took off for hours of home visits, followed by an evening debriefing session.

DIRTY TRICKS

The morning of the third day confronted students with an all-out consideration of the employer counter-offensive: captive audience meetings, one-on-one interrogations, dirty tricks, deceitful literature. Field Org. Keith Eveleth became a company president and McGinn a personnel manager for an eerily effective enactment of a captive meeting.

At the Erie school, Bryan Rice, Local 623 was overwhelmed by this discussion. "My shop was organized a while ago, I never went through the dirty tricks."

Little of this came as a surprise to Chris Falk, Local 697 whose shop came into UE less than a year ago. "We went through quite a few of the dirty tricks," he said. Having gone through a campaign was an asset for him and the school, Falk suggested. "On home visits, I knew what we were going to be asked."

Students were reminded that home visits are an opportunity to educate the unorganized, to respond to the company and to prepare the unorganized to respond to the lies and dirty tricks.

TRY THIS AT HOME

On the next to the last day, students discussed finding contacts and targets at home, surveying members for organizing contacts, follow-up with contacts and organizing volunteers for local organizing campaigns.

Students were asked to write themselves a letter outlining goals for the next several months; the letters would be mailed from the National office a month after the school’s conclusion.

The class got down to the specifics of the organizing campaign linked to the school, analyzing the results of visits, rating contacts and departments and thoroughly previewing the agenda and goals of the following day’s meeting.

On the final day came the organizing meeting. UE rank and filers warmly encouraged the unorganized, drawing from their own shop experiences and information acquired in the school.

The schools in Iowa and Ohio followed the same curriculum as the other schools, although instructor Rachel Meyer carefully noted the differences between public and private sector organizing. "The steps in organizing are the same but the approach and timing are different," she told us.

Employees of the organizing targets in Iowa and Ohio received mailings from the union inviting them to a first organizing meeting; in their home visits, the student organizers worked to build attendance for those meetings.

LIGHTING A FIRE

Among the workers home-visited during the Erie school were those employed by Foamex, a manufacturer of foam for mattresses and carpets located in Corry, Pa. Many responded enthusiastically to the UE message delivered to their doorsteps by rank-and-file volunteers.

Before the school, there was no union activity at Foamex. Now there is. As the UE NEWS was readied for press, Field Org. Gornall reported that committees were being developed on all shifts. Graduates of the Erie school are attending weekly organizing committee meetings, and a "class reunion" scheduled for May 17 was expected to give added impetus to the growing campaign.

At the District Six council meeting on May 9, many delegates were delighted to see friends from Foamex made during home visits during the Erie school.

Campaigns are underway among public-sector workers who met with Ohio school participants.

Meanwhile, Bryan Rice is developing contacts at an unorganized shop in the Pittsburgh area. Elected local president since attending the school, Scott Buterbaugh has informed his members they can be expected to be asked for assistance in organizing. Buterbaugh has already recruited volunteers.

Local 751 sent three members to the school in Erie, three to the school in Delaware, Ohio. Rich Tarnaski, who attended the Ohio school, is working on developing contacts at two unorganized workplaces shops in the Niles area; another shop has been targeted as well. The Niles-Mahoning General Electric local is forming its an organizing committee, which will work with the local executive board and UE field staff.

The organizing schools gave participants the excitement, the information, the tools and the confidence — and redoubled the commitment — to build UE.

Thanks to the school, Mike Schwertz is certain he could take an organizing campaign further on his own. "I feel a lot more confident than when I arrived," said Local 264 Pres. Diane Brawn.

The school, said Peter Amaral, "was a big crash course about what UE does to organize on a national scale. And it wasn’t just info crammed into you, but a chance to participate. Now I’ve got the tools."

Rich Drylie thought the school "was one of the greatest things I’ve seen since I’ve been in UE," despite the long hours, and the disappointment of the occasional wrong address or hostile reception. "Sometimes we had doors slammed in our faces. But it was worthwhile. We were having a great time talking about UE."

Declared Chris Falk, "I hope we can help the organizers broaden the cause of UE, the only cause I know of that’s worth this time and effort."


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