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Taking Aim: Some Background on Rank-and-File Unionism

Watching them today, we would probably think they were crazy. Forty-three workers from as far away as Fort Wayne, Indiana and Camden, New Jersey plowed through a March 1936 snowstorm to meet in Buffalo, New York.

High Hopes

They represented just twelve local unions, most of which had organized in secret (if they were found out, the members would be fired—and blacklisted, too). Only three locals actually had a contract. Hand-collected dues of pennies and nickels got them to Buffalo—hope and determination would have to do the rest.

Their goal? To set up a national union to organize the hundreds of thousands of workers in the electrical, and soon, machine tool industries—in a way that hadn't succeeded before, either. Instead of organizing only skilled workers, these workers wanted to organize everyone—in the electrical industry alone, that meant more than 350,000 workers. The idea was pretty awesome. The fact that it worked is even more awesome.

A New Type of Union

The men and women who undertook this gigantic task were inspired by the need to build an industrial organization (meaning all workers could be part of the union), controlled by the members, with complete equality for all who worked in that industry.

They were determined to avoid the bureaucratic, top-level control that was characteristic of the existing craft unions (where only skilled workers could belong). And, they were just as determined to bring into their movement the hundreds of thousands whose need for organization had been, up to that time, ignored.

Let's see ....

The 43 of them thought they could start a new, national union?

What?! Were they crazy?!

Their guiding principles were summed up in the preamble to the UE Constitution, which remains a model of trade union democracy to this day.

PREAMBLE to the UE Constitution

We, the Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE) realize that the struggle to better our working and living conditions is in vain unless we are united to protect ourselves collectively against the organized forces of the employers.

Realizing that the old craft form of trade union organization is unable to defend effectively the interests and improve the conditions of the wage earners, WE THE ELECTRICAL, RADIO AND MACHINE WORKERS (UE) form an organization which unites all workers on an industrial basis, and rank-and-file control, regardless of craft, age, sex, nationality, race, creed, or political beliefs, and pursue at all times a policy of aggressive struggle to improve our conditions.

We pledge ourselves to labor unitedly for the principles herein set forth, to perpetuate our union and work concertedly with other labor organizations to bring about a higher standard of living of the workers.

(Note that the call for unity on an "industrial basis" here means unity among all working people and, in particular, among all workers in a particular industry in all of that industry's workplaces.)

Relying only on their meager resources, these UE pioneers for industrial unionism laid the foundation for an organization that has retained control by the rank-and-file as the guiding principle of the union's structure.

From the Bottom-Up

UE's origins and development differed sharply from the other large, industrial unions which were formed at the time. Most were built from the top-down, depending on organizers, lawyers and outside financial help. This limited both their independence and involvement by members. To a far greater extent, UE was built by workers organizing themselves, local-by-local, from the bottom-up.

This gave our union a much different character. Locals were built on self-reliance, while the entire union depended upon the democratic agreement of its locals and members to organize and grow as a national union.

The 21st Century

Now, well over a half-century later, UE is a strong, vibrant, rank-and-file run union. We continue to organize new members and represent UE members in ways that few other unions can match. This on-line pamphlet explains how it works.