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The Role of the National Union

The primary function of the National Union is to organize and unite workers around the polices and programs of action adopted by the National Convention.

Our aim is to improve the working conditions and living standards of all workers by taking on the organized forces of the employers. We do this by organizing new workers into our union and by providing guidance and help to existing UE locals.

It's Democracy (Not Anarchy)!

In UE, the members direct the work of the National Union at the biennial UE National Convention by setting the union's policies and programs. The General Executive Board—which is made up of the General Vice Presidents (UE Region Presidents), Region Secretaries, Region At-Large Members and the three national officers—meets three times a year to decide on issues that come up between conventions. The day-to-day work of the union is directed by the union's three General Officers (President, Secretary-Treasurer, and Director of Organization).

How it Works

Members at all levels of the union—from local leaders, to the General Executive Board, to the national officers—are responsible for carrying out the policies and programs of the union between the National Conventions.

Support for UE programs is not enforced. It's agreed upon democratically by UE locals attending the National Convention. Our strength as a national union depends entirely on how well UE locals live up to the agreement they strike annually with all the other locals in our union. This is an impressive example of real democracy in action. A member of another union, while watching a UE Convention, expressed amazement at how it was conducted. "It seems like your President is encouraging debate," he exclaimed. "That would never happen in my union!"

Like any democracy, however, once the policies and programs are set, it's important that members agree to abide by the decision of the majority—and sometimes this is misunderstood. "The members run this union" by setting its direction and policies, not by opting to ignore decisions that are not popular or convenient at a particular moment.

The National Union

The role of the National UE, in carrying out the union's policies and programs, is to provide guidance and assistance to Region Councils and locals and to coordinate their day-to-day activities. The National Union provides advice and assistance, so that members can make fully informed decisions on matters that affect their locals, and active support when the members and locals need it. It also organizes new members, because we understand the fundamental reality that the wages and living conditions of all workers are directly tied to the level of unionization.

Responsibility for this work falls on the union's national officers, who direct five key areas of UE activity. They are:

Organization

The Director of Organization guides UE's organizational work—both in new organizing and in servicing UE Locals. A UE field organizer is assigned to each UE local to provide help and assistance, when needed. International representatives, assigned to each Region, oversee the work of field organizers and, in turn, report to the Director of Organization. The organizers and international representatives (often called field staff) are also responsible for carrying out UE organizing campaigns—organizing new members into the union.

The Organizational Work of the Union involves organizing new members while providing help and advice to UE locals.

Collective Bargaining

The field staff, under the direction of the General Officers, assists UE locals in their collective bargaining activities and grievance handling. UE works to set national standards for contract negotiations and defending members' rights.

The General Officers indirectly oversee all negotiations and participate in bargaining with General Electric (where UE has held a national contract since 1938) and in cases where UE locals are facing particular difficulties.

UE bargains with a number of major employers including GE and the state of Iowa among others. To ensure effective representation of our members, we participate in the AFL-CIO's Coordinated Bargaining Committee (CBC) and Industrial Union Department (IUD).

(Although we work with other unions on many levels—from strike and solidarity actions on the local level to participation in Jobs with Justice nationwide—UE remains organizationally and philosophically separate from the AFL-CIO.)

Political Action

The UE's Political Action Director, based in Washington D.C., works with the General Officers and UE Locals to develop a plan of action, based on policies adopted at the National Convention. UE Political action is issue oriented. Unlike most other unions, the National Union does not have a "PAC Fund"—we don't spend members' dues money on politicians. Rather, we depend on a mobilized membership to deliver our demands to politicians at all levels of government.

Education and Publicity

Education on issues affecting working people, as well as on our unique style of rank-and-file unionism, is an important part of the union's work. In UE, where the members have the determining voice on all vital issues, it is obviously important that they be well informed. Since the views of big business and major corporations dominate our society, union education is critically important in helping develop working class policies, understandings, and, most importantly, active stands on issues affecting working people.

The General Officers carry out their responsibilities in this area through a variety of means. One important way is through the UE News, which is published monthly by the National Union. Another is by directing the work of the UE Education Department (which, in addition to an Education Director, includes the full-time work of experienced field staff).

The National Union regularly sponsors workshops and seminars in local areas and offers a variety of training materials for UE members, officers and stewards. New pamphlets, booklets and videos are also made available on a regular basis. Information on these materials is available in UE Resources, a free catalog, available upon request from the national office, and from fliers sent to UE locals. The primary function of the National Union is to organize all workers around the policies and programs adopted by the National Convention.

International Solidarity

Of increasing importance in recent years, is our work to build cross-border relationships with workers in other countries. As the economy has become much more "global," so has the need to stop big business from shipping jobs from "high wage" to "low wage" areas at will—and from exerting a very strong, downward pressure on wages and living conditions in the U.S. One pioneering effort by UE, under the direction of the General Officers, is providing support for a democratic, rank-and-file Mexican union federation (F.A.T.), which has agreed to target for organization UE employers who operate in that country. UE also maintains strong relations with unions in other countries, including Japan, France and El Salvador.

In carrying out all of these activities, the National Officers are assisted by several national office departments and staff, including (in alphabetical order): Accounting, Affiliations, Auditing, Education, the GE Conference Board, International, Legal, News and Publicity, Organizing, Political Action, Research, and Shipping.

Role of Staff

In a rank-and-file union, the staff hired by the National Union plays a special role. UE staff includes Field Organizers, International Representatives, and the people who work at the UE National Office in Pittsburgh and the Political Action office in Washington. In every case, there are two main responsibilities: to build the union and maintain a healthy UE structure. Of particular importance is what UE staff cannot do: run the union.

This means that UE staff members cannot dictate the internal politics of UE locals, districts, and the National Union. They can provide help and advise on programs and policies. But, ultimately, the running of our union is left to the members, as it has been since 1936.

More Information?

To learn more about your union, read Them and Us: The Struggles of a Rank and File Union and Solidarity and Democracy: A Leadership Guide to UE History. The UE Policy Book, containing the resolutions adopted by delegates to the UE national convention, is also published biennially. These materials are available from the UE National Office.