In the 1930s, as rank-and-file workers in the electrical manufacturing industry were establishing UE in workplaces like the giant General Electric plant in Erie, PA (Local 506) and Sargent Lock in New Haven, CT (Local 243), a union with a similar “Them and Us” philosophy of unionism was building militant, interracial unions in iron ore mines in an area known as “Red Mountain” near Birmingham, Alabama.
September 5 marks the 75th anniversary of a National Labor Relations Board election that took place at the China American Tobacco Company in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. It was the first NLRB victory in eastern North Carolina for the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural & Allied Workers of America (FTA-CIO), part of a campaign that would bring nearly 10,000 tobacco “leaf house” workers, most of them African-American women, into unions.
The federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that our nation is celebrating today honors the struggle for civil rights led by Dr. King during his lifetime. Less well-known is that its existence as a federal holiday, and as a holiday in many UE union contracts, was itself a product of struggle, one that began shortly after Dr. King was assassinated while supporting striking municipal workers in Memphis.
The passage of Medicare in 1965 was a great victory for the US working class. Prior to Medicare, less than half of the elderly had any kind of medical insurance, and most working people struggled to pay for hospitalization and other major medical costs after they retired. Less well-known is the fact that Medicare also dealt a serious blow to racial segregation.
The legendary Ernest Thompson was a rank and file UE leader in New Jersey, the first African-American on UE’s national staff, and the national secretary of UE’s Fair Practices Committee (FPC). A new edition of Thompson’s autobiography Homeboy Came to Orange: A Story of People’s Power, co-written with his daughter Mindy Thompson Fullilove, was published this year by New Village Press.
Homeboy Came to Orange tells the story of time in UE, but also his organizing for “people’s power” in the segregated northern city of Orange, NJ, where Thompson became active in community organizing after leaving UE. Beginning with a fight to desegregate the schools his daughter attended, Thompson built organizations which increased the political power of working-class African Americans in their city, based on a program called “A New Day for Orange” that addressed urban redevelopment, unemployment, improving the school system, civil rights, recreation and representative government.
Fifty years ago, African-American sanitation workers in Memphis stood up for dignity, striking to demand recognition of their union — and their humanity.
Five excellent films on black history are currently showing in theaters or available on DVD or streaming services.
In December 1952, under a front page banner headline, the UE NEWS reported that Harold Ward had been freed. Who was Harold Ward? A previous issue of the UE NEWS carried a photo of Ward and noted that he was financial secretary of UE-FE (Farm Equipment) Local 108 at International Harvester in Chicago. In October, in the seventh week of a strike at the company, he was arrested and charged with the murder of a non-striker. But as Local 108 President Matt Halas explained: “The reason Ward was accused is clear.
“I am certain that all men of goodwill are eternally grateful to that section of the labor movement which is working so courageously to end discrimination on the job for all people.” Martin Luther King Jr. letter to UE Director of Organization James J. Matles, November 25, 1957
During his years as a local union officer and as a UE organizer, union members nicknamed Ernest Thompson “The Train” because of his ability “to deliver” in negotiations. In 1943 Thompson came out of his shop, American Radiator in New Jersey, to become the first African American organizer on the UE staff. In March of 1947 he took a leave from the national staff to become business agent for UE Local 427, and he was elected vice president and later executive secretary of the Hudson County CIO Industrial Union Council.