Remembering Jim Matles and the Legacy He Left UE

July 1, 2015
Photo of Jim Matles speaking in front of a podium with a UE logo, and words "Remembering Jim Matles and the Legacy He Left UE"

This year’s UE national convention will mark the 40th anniversary of the farewell speech of Jim Matles, one of UE’s founding officers and one of the most important leaders in our union’s history. He gave that speech on September 10, 1975 at the 40th UE National Convention in San Francisco. Five days later, while helping with a UE organizing campaign in Santa Barbara, Matles died of a sudden heart attack. The speech was published by UE as a pamphlet and distributed for years, and cassette recordings of the speech, made by a UE convention delegate, circulated among UE activists. Those who heard the speech talked about it for years, and those who knew or met Jim Matles have never forgotten his impact on them and on the union he helped build.

One year after UE’s founding by workers in the electrical equipment and radio industries, James Matles led a group of 15,000 machinists in 14 locals out of the IAM and into UE. One of their major grievances was the IAM’s whites-only membership policy. At UE’s national convention in September 1937, delegates amended the union’s name to United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America and added a third national officer position, director of organization, to which Matles was elected.

Divisions in the union caused by the erratic behavior of UE’s first president caused delegates at the 1941 convention to replace him with Albert Fitzgerald, a GE worker and UE leader from Lynn, MA. The leadership team of President Fitzgerald, Secretary-Treasurer Julius Empak, and Matles that led UE through World War II, the postwar strike wave, the “red-scare” attacks of the 1950s. UE was fortunate to be led by three brilliant and courageous unionists as the union faced some of its greatest challenges, particularly the ‘50s, when a concerted effort of employers, government, Republican and Democratic politicians, news media, and most of the labor leadership tried to wipe out UE. (After Emspak’s death in 1962 Matles was elected secretary-treasurer.)

Matles had been born in 1909 to Jewish parents in a small town in eastern Romania. He came to the U.S. in 1928 at age 19 and soon became a citizen, went to work in various machine shops in Brooklyn, and became active in union organizing. During World War II he took a leave from his duties as a UE officer to serve in the Army. But when the government and companies decided to use every weapon at their disposal against UE, Matles himself became a target. From 1952 to 1957, the federal government tried to take away his citizenship so it could deport him. UE fought this legal battle and many others, including efforts to fire and jail UE leaders and even to outlaw the union as a “communist conspiracy”, while UE locals were fighting for decent contracts and fighting efforts by other unions to “raid” our membership.

UE’s survival over those attacks, and its renewed growth in membership and influence in the 1960s and ‘70s, are perhaps the greatest accomplishments of Matles and other leaders of his generations. Matles’s contributions to UE are too extensive to fully describe in this. He helped launch UE’s efforts to organize the South starting in the 1960s. For years he headed up UE’s bargaining with GE, and worked tirelessly to end the civil war between UE and the IUE and other unions and build a united front to negotiate with GE. His efforts bore fruit with the birth of coordinated bargaining and the 1969-70 strike by a coalition of unions that dealt a blow to GE’s divide-and-conquer strategy.

“He’s the person who held the union to its long traditions of rank-and-file unionism,” says former UE General President John Hovis, who joined UE in 1967 and was hired onto the staff by Matles in ’74. “He was also very concerned about union education and the union’s future, and he tied the two together. If we didn’t do a good job of educating people about what the union stands for and why it stands for the things it does, then the union wouldn’t be able to continue on with the principles and ideals it started with. That’s what he planned to do in his retirement. He wanted to spend his time in the field with the staff, teaching them about the union, not only how to organize, that wasn’t the primary thing. The primary thing was teaching them about the union and its principles and its history.”

Former UE Secretary-Treasurer Amy Newell grew up knowing Matles because her father Charles Newell was one of the first UE organizers and a close friend of Matles since the early 1930s. She took a job at an electronics plant in Silicon Valley in 1972 and joined the UE staff in 1974, so her personal memories of Matles are mostly from earlier. “I have no doubt about his brilliance as a leader and tactician and orator. What I mainly remember about him was just his warmth, he was such a warm human being. He and his wife Esther meant so much to my parents.”

Pat McCaughty, who recently retired as the Eastern Region’s office manager, has memories of Matles from her first conventions in the early 1970s when she was a worker at LIMCO in Pittsburgh and a delegate for Local 623. “My first convention was 1973 in Pittsburgh. This was a new thing to me, I’d never been to anything that big before, or in a big hotel, it was all new to me. That was the first time I saw or heard Matles. And what I remember is everyone saying, ‘When’s Matles speaking? When’s Matles speaking?’ Not even, ‘What’s he speaking on?’ just ‘When?’ It was like a rock star.”

The experience of UE International Representative Marion Washington confirms how much UE members wanted to hear Matles speak. Washington was a young worker at the Charleston, South Carolina GE turbine plant when workers there organized into UE in the mid-1970s. “We were organizing the union and I was kind of a late-comer on the union drive because I had only worked there a few years. What happened was Matles was the speaker at one of our organizational meetings, and it was so crowded that it was standing room only, so I really didn’t get to listen to his speech because I couldn’t get in the door. A bunch of us were literally outside, trying to listen through the window. It had to be one of the biggest turnouts we ever had for any of our activities. It was the peak of our organizing drive, and so many people had heard things about him being a dynamic speaker.”

Humberto Camacho, retired UE international representative and former District 10 president, was working on the Santa Barbara campaign with Matles. When he got home he had phone messages that Matles had had been hospitalized, and by the time he got to the hospital Matles had died.

“Jim Matles was an inspiration to me, foreign-born like he was, through he had all the struggles with the immigration department who were going to put him on a boat and ship him back to Europe. And the way every other week the FBI was making visits, making life miserable for him, and he beat all the odds, even when he went to court to testify. He was not afraid of those people. He defied them and he won. So no matter how hard things are for you, even when it’s from the Department of Labor or the State Department, we can stay firm and believe that we are human beings and we have the right to our own lives in the United States.

“With Matles, Fitzie and Empspak, we were led by some beautiful people who taught us that rank-and-file democracy is the only way to sustain a union and get good contracts. I saw my dreams are coming true when I met some of the younger UE people at May Day in Los Angeles. So thank you to the rank and file and thank you to the new generation. We love you and we hope that you continue the fight of UE.”

“He was the single most influential leader in UE’s history, and I think it had to do with the tone he set of an absolute commitment to rank-and-file unionism, financial integrity, organization, labor unity,” says Steve Tormey, retired UE international representative and former secretary of the UE-GE Conference Board who joined the UE staff in 1971. “His whole career he lived up to the words in the UE preamble. The preamble wasn’t just a matter of nice-sounding principles, he actually lived it. He lived his life behind those principles and set an example to follow for everyone who had any association with him. I never once heard the man speak when I wasn’t inspired. He was absolutely the best speaker I’ve ever heard in my life.”

Former GE workers and Local 618 President Ron Flowers says, “I always considered myself lucky because, dealing with General Electric as a union officer for 30 years, I went to third step grievance meetings which took me to New York City, so I had more connection with Matles and Fitzie and the other national leaders than the average local would have. I learned a lot just sitting around with him and Fitzie and some of the others, because Jim loved to talk about the old battles.”

“He was trying to get the unions to work together against GE in the 1966 negotiations, but the IUE president went ahead and signed the contract the company offered. It was Matles’s persistence that finally got everyone working together, and it resulted in the 1969 strike.”

MATLES’S LEGACY IN PRINT

As John Hovis points out, in Matles’s last years he was very concerned with passing on to new generations of UE members this union’s unique principles, and the history through which those principles were developed and in which UE members fought and bled to maintain those principles. He left behind many speeches in which he spoke passionately on those themes. But besides the UE principles he helped pass on to us, perhaps his greatest and most enduring gift to the UE members and leaders who would come after him was his book, Them and Us: Struggles of a Rank-and-File Union, written with help from journalist James J. Higgins and published in 1974, a year before Matles’s death. It’s a book that should be read by every UE member and everyone committed to democratic unionism. UE locals can order it in bulk from the UE National Office, and individuals can purchase it directly from the UE online store or by calling UE at 412-471-8919.

Jim Matles’ Farewell Speech to UE Members

The following are excerpts from Jim Matles’s farewell speech to the 40th UE national convention in 1975 at which he announced his retirement and did not seek re-election. As always, Matles used the speech to teach important lessons — in this case, about the economic crisis that began in the ‘70s and continues to this day, and that the response the corporations planned was to keep unemployment high and lower the standard of living of workers. He also talked about the biggest lesson he had learned in 45 years in the labor movement: that our only hope lies in workers organizing to fight back.

You can listen the complete speech, recorded at the 1975 convention, here:

Our country is in the deepest trouble. I have spent some time, the time that I could spare during the past year, in trying to find out what has brought this about, and I have been reading what some of the chief corporate executives of this country have to say about our corporate profits system… I say to you today, as I have in a number of the District meetings recently, that I haven’t heard the kind of discussions coming from the corporate executives of this country today since the ‘30s when many of them were scared to death that this set-up may go down the drain.

THE 1930s AND THE NEW DEAL

When we look back to the ‘30s we often think about Franklin D. Roosevelt. We think of FDR sometimes as the savior of our people, the great humanitarian. It is true, Roosevelt was not Tom Girdler of Republic Steel who had the strikers shot down in Chicago. No, FDR was not that kind of man. He was what you would call a liberal man.

But Franklin D. Roosevelt did represent the corporate interests in America and he knew that the set-up was in trouble… Roosevelt knew that the system had to make concessions in order to save itself, and he proceeded on a course to do just that, to save the corporate system in America. But most of the bosses were too dumb to realize what he was doing for them. They were too dumb to appreciate it.

But he saved the system. Yes, under the pressure of the millions he gave ground. He put through some of the outstanding labor and social legislation of our time: the minimum wage and hour law, the Wagner Act, unemployment compensation, Social Security. Not since those early days of the New Deal have we seen a single gain of special importance to working people and to the people of America. Not one significant piece of social legislation of the same magnitude.

When the system was saved, they clamped down again. Yes, we have made progress, the working people have made progress in 40 years… but for every bit of progress they made they had to drag the system along, kicking and screaming and scratching all the time. Not a single concession was made willingly, no matter what the working people have done for the system, not a single concession.

A COMPANY UNION IS A COMPANY UNION

When we started to organize in GE and Westinghouse, there was an entrenched company union in Schenectady and an entrenched company union in East Pittsburgh. Today we have two great big company unions in America: a Republican company union and a Democratic union. That’s a new standard.

And in answer to those who say one company union is better than the other, let me tell you what happened to me in my first shop meeting in the shop I worked when we started to organize. The president of my local union, Joe Wild of the Machinists, was in the chair, and one of the fellows got up to give a report… And he said, “We got a rough time. We got a lousy foreman in my department.”

And I got up — I didn’t talk too well then; didn’t know how to talk English at all, I don’t know it much better now — and I said, “Mr. Chairman, we have a good foreman in my department.’

And he said, “Son, when you learn how to speak English better, you won’t say that. You will say, ‘my foreman is not as lousy as the other one.’ That’s what you will say.”

Don’t let anyone get up and talk about one company union being better than the other. They are all lousy. Here and there you have a company union official in one state — he may be a Republican or a Democrat — who doesn’t cut your throat quite as much as the other one. At least he hides it better.

A LIFE IN THE LABOR MOVEMENT

It is strange that after 40 years I should have to tell you a couple of things about myself. But I have a reason. I have a reason because it is with greatest pride, my greatest pride, is the fact that here you have an immigrant boy, 19 years old, coming into this country, and as a result of what you have done, you pushed me up there to meet with the heads of General Electric and the heads of Westinghouse, with our committees, and with the heads of the large corporations in America. You considered it worthy that a fellow like myself or Emspak or Fitzgerald would be able to represent you.

The first job I got in the union — I joined it 45 years ago — the Metal Workers Industrial Union. I was elected secretary-treasurer. I was eminently qualified for that job but I have two minor problems. I didn’t know how to read or write English. I asked my president, Joe Wild, “Why do you do this?” He said, “You’re young, you’ll learn.”

I will say the decision-making there was not too monumental. If I missed something in the minutes, there wouldn’t be a catastrophe. The treasury we had in the union was $1.46. That was the treasury.

I took my minutes — I was catching on already, taking a little bit English — I was writing it down in Romanian. And as for translating, I had a girlfriend, she was born here, I would talk to her and she would make up my minutes in English.

There is where it all began. And I want to say to you I don’t plan to quit UE or quit the labor movement. That’s not my plan at all.

You have given me a pension and I have the Social Security that we won in the ‘30s and I think I helped to do something about that. Whatever you find me doing in this union you should know, if any question comes up, that not one penny in wages or salary will go to me for anything that I may do for this union beginning November 1 when my term of office expires.

I do not equate working with the union or the labor movement with being an officer. Giving up my office does not mean giving up my convictions and my beliefs.

Fitz said that I volunteered to do some work with our organizers and local officers, to help them develop to the extent that I have learned anything, to see if I can pass any of it on… I figured the organizers and local officers who can see beyond the nickel-and-dime unions, beyond the type of business unionism, those who want to make a contribution and serve the interests of the working people in America — I figured maybe I may be able to be of help to them…

I’m turning in my stripes, I’m not turning in my UE uniform, and I sure as hell am not turning in my M-1.

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