UE General President Peter Knowlton has announced that he plans to retire when his term ends on October 31, and he will not seek reelection at this year’s convention.
He will be retiring with over three decades of service to UE as a field organizer, district and then regional president, and national officer, though as Knowlton is quick to remind anyone he's around these days, this is not the end of his contributions to the union — he plans to stay active as a retiree.
Knowlton is known throughout the union for his willingness, even eagerness, to debate and discuss difficult issues; his passion for UE's progressive values and democratic practices; and above all, his boundless optimism.
Shaped by Social Movements
Knowlton had a wide variety of organizing and social-movement experience prior to coming to UE in the mid-80s. As a student at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in the 70s, he was part of a bold though ultimately unsuccessful effort to organize a union of students that sought collective bargaining with the state over dorms, fees, tuition, course selection and other issues. He became involved in anti-nuclear organizing and the Native American Solidarity Committee, and spent time in jail for engaging in civil disobedience as part of the anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance.
In 1977, he moved to Minneapolis and became involved in the weatherization program established by the Carter Administration under the federal Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA), where he saw first-hand the promise of environmental policy to create good, union jobs and bring them to communities suffering from marginalization and unemployment. Knowlton himself was an energy auditor (a nonunion position), but he worked with a whole other section of workers doing installation, who were all in the carpenters’ union. The program was not only unionized, but is also created one of the first union apprenticeships for people of color and women in Minneapolis.
Knowlton later got a job as a cab driver, working for one of the last unionized cab companies that directly employed drivers. When the company announced it was closing its doors, Knowlton and his 600 co-workers tried to buy it out and re-establish the company as a unionized worker co-op, but they came just shy of being able to raise the needed funds — in part because the National Consumer Co-op Bank made a potential loan conditional on the workers abandoning their union.
In 1982, Knowlton was hired to be the state director for AFSCME in South Dakota, which brought him to the state during the lengthy battle UE was waging for a first contract at the Litton microwave oven factory in Sioux Falls. UE and AFSCME were among the most politically and organizationally active unions in the state, and in 1983, they combined forces to help elect the first woman – a labor friendly candidate - to the Sioux Falls City Commission.
“You’re With the Workers Now”
The UE International Representative in South Dakota at the time, Bob Kingsley, remembers hearing Peter give a speech at a union convention in Rapid City, South Dakota. “‘There’s a fire burning on the prairie!’ Peter repeated over and over as he addressed each new topic,” Kingsley recalled. “I’m not so sure his listeners agreed with him about that prairie fire, but it was clear to me that there was a fire burning in Peter, one that could help our organization.”
Kingsley arranged an interview for Peter with then UE Director of Organization Hugh Harley at a diner in Sioux Falls. “I could tell it went well, so I was excited that we might get some talented new help in South Dakota,” Kingsley said. “When Harley called the next day and said he was hired – and assigned to Massachusetts -- I was disappointed, but it worked out for the best in the long run.”
Knowlton, for his part, was pleasantly surprised to be assigned to his home state. “My jaw must have hit the floor — who gets transferred back home?”
Knowlton’s first assignment was working with Local 274, who were then (as now) in a difficult battle with Greenfield Tap & Die, which had just been purchased by an investment firm from St. Louis that wanted to slash wages and all sorts of benefits for the UE workforce in Greenfield.
He recalls the atmosphere was very different than working for AFSCME, where staff representatives were expected to dress in suits and ties. “I show up for my first negotiations for Greenfield Tap and Die in a regular button-down shirt, tie, and corduroy jacket. Jim Green, the president of the local and Greenfield Tap & Die shop chair, says to me, ‘What are you wearing? You’re with the workers now, take that [expletive] off’ — and I’ve never worn one since.”
Knowlton was mentored by International Representative Don Tormey, a long-serving and well-respected UE organizer. “Every week I would go pick up Don, bring him back, he would give me a political and organizational UE history on every trip,” Knowlton recalls.
“The Only Ones Who Really Put up a Fight”
In 1988, Knowlton was transferred to New Bedford to service UE shops in southeast Massachusetts, where he was involved in one plant closing struggle after another. Carl Olsen, president of UE Local 284 at the JC Rhodes plant in New Bedford at the time, told the UE NEWS that there were plant closings left and right in southeast Massachusetts in those days, but that UE locals were “the only ones who really put up a fight and didn't cave.”
JC Rhodes was at the center of one of the most innovative of UE’s plant closing struggles, as Local 284 came remarkably close to convincing the city of New Bedford to use “eminent domain” (the legal right of government to requisition property for the good of the community) to keep the plant open. The eminent domain legislation passed two of three required readings, but on the last reading the mayor betrayed the workers.
Knowlton was not only central to this innovative campaign to preserve good jobs in the face of corporate greed, he also worked with then-UE NEWS editor Peter Gilmore to produce a booklet, Refuse to Lose: Eminent Domain and the JC Rhodes Campaign, so that other UE members and other unions could learn from Local 284’s experience.
Although the JC Rhodees struggle was ultimately unsuccessful in keeping the plant open, “We did get very substantial severance packages for all the workers,” recalled Olsen. After the plant closed, Olsen found work at the Old Rochester school district, where he promptly — with Knowlton’s help — organized his new co-workers into UE, forming UE Local 248.
District and Regional President
When District 2 President Judy Atkins retired in 2001, Knowlton was elected president of the district. During his first few years on the General Executive Board, the union made a number of difficult decisions to address the union’s finances, including moving to holding national conventions only every two years. Knowlton and virtually every local in District 2 opposed this move.
“We were the one district that pushed hard to keep annual conventions,” Knowlton told the UE NEWS, but after the 2002 and 2003 conventions voted to implement the biannual convention, “No one was bitter.” He praised this as a good example of the importance of majority rule, and of those whose positions don’t prevail in the debate accepting and embracing democratic decisions. “There wasn’t a single person who griped about it” after the fact, he recalled.
As district president, Knowlton was instrumental in convincing the members of the Connecticut Independent Labor Union to affiliate with UE as amalgamated UE Local 222. In 2005, he helped guide the union through the transition from districts to regions — after which he served for a further decade as president of the Northeast Region.
Knowlton also worked hard to make all UE members comfortable in the union. When working in southeastern Massachusetts, he learned Portuguese to be able to better communicate with the many Portuguese-speaking UE members in the shops in that area. International Representative Carol Lambiase, who worked with Knowlton in New England from the 80s through the 2000s, told the UE NEWS that “Peter really respected the women that he worked with and had no ego problems when dealing with women. That really helped the women that he worked with develop as leaders in the union, because nobody felt like they were challenging his ego.”
On the National Stage
Knowlton was elected General President at UE's 2015 convention after the retirement of General President Bruce Klipple. During his term he has consistently encouraged UE members to discuss not only the future of the UE, but a working-class vision for the labor movement, the country, and humanity itself. He has also brought the UE vision to other venues as a speaker, including the South Carolina AFL-CIO, the Sanders Institute Gathering, the Sunrise Movement's Philadelphia Town Hall on the Green New Deal, and many Unifor conferences and rallies in Canada.
After the union's three geographic regions and General Executive Board endorsed Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign, Knowlton took an active role in Labor for Bernie, which brought together the handful of unions who had enough independence from the Democratic Party establishment to endorse the insurgent, pro-labor candidate. He remained an active participant as Labor for Bernie transformed after the 2016 primaries into Labor for Our Revolution, and is pushing the rest of the labor movement to follow UE's example of thorough debate and discussion about political endorsements.
He has brought UE leadership to the newly re-energized struggle for Medicare for All, single-payer healthcare, a longtime UE political goal that Knowlton consistently prioritized as a district and regional president. “One day soon, when we finally get health insurance off the bargaining table in contract negotiations, we should look back and remember that no one was beating the drum louder than Peter during the decades-long fight to make health care a human right,” said Kingsley.
The pressing issue of climate change, and the possibilities of reviving good, union jobs while tackling this existential threat to humanity, has been another priority for Knowlton. As he remarked in his President's Address to UE's 2017 convention, “the fight we are waging now against climate warming and to save humanity from our own destruction is ... without question, the greatest single battle” we face as trade unionists.
Along with his fellow national officers, Secretary-Treasurer Andrew Dinkelaker and Director of Organization Gene Elk, Knowlton has helped nurture and develop UE's relationship with the Canadian union Unifor and the resulting North American Solidarity Project, which also includes US unions and UE allies National Nurses United, the Utility Workers Union of America and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Fred Wilson, Unifor’s retired Director of Strategic Planning, notes that the project “began with a modest idea of cooperation around cross border solidarity but it grew into something larger and more important. That was in large part because of Peter's persuasive vision and the widely held respect for him among American trade union activists.”
A "Dream Job" and a Blessing
Reflecting on his career in the labor movement, Knowlton says that “Getting paid to raise hell with the boss was a dream job.”
On his eighteen year as an elected leader in UE, he remarked, "I never expected to be in these positions. I didn’t join the union to be in these positions. Just being in the UE you learn pretty quickly how different we are from the rest of the labor movement."
“It’s been a blessing to be able to serve the membership in these capacities.”
UE leaders remember working with Peter Knowlton.
“My first thought upon meeting Peter Knowlton that he was a very rumpled person. He reminded me of Columbo, not just because he was rumpled, but he was relentless in his questioning of everything and everybody. He would rarely stop until he got to the organizational heart of the issue, and until he had figured out a way to solve our members’ problems, and build the organization.
“He warned me that in his first two years on staff he wasn’t allowed to speak during caucuses, grievances and arbitration cases, or during negotiations. I told him that was probably not going to hold true in my case! We had numerous no-holds barred arguments over the years, but always knew at the end of the day that we were comrades fighting together to organize the working class.
“Peter was a UE loyalist through and through, and I am proud to call him my friend. He taught me everything I know about the labor movement, but he did not teach me everything he knows. I wish him all the best in his retirement, he certainly deserves it. However don’t be surprised to see him at a variety of UE events and actions in the future, and helping to guide the next generation of union leadership.”
—John Woodruff, former president, UE Local 222 and retired UE International Representative
“Peter Knowlton has a great passion for UE, its members, and for the labor movement and has dedicated his life to our struggle for justice. I will miss working with him on a regular basis, but I know that he will continue to make contributions to UE even after his retirement.”
—Gene Elk, UE Director of Organization
“Peter’s contribution to the UE has been tremendous. It has been a pleasure serving with Peter both as a fellow region president and later as a fellow national officer. In both instances we found ourselves part of reorganization discussions, first with the reorganization of districts into regions in the mid-2000s and today with the reorganization of both the union’s regions and finances. His optimism and openness have been important qualities that contributed to both the regionalization processes and the work over the past few years with Unifor on the North American Solidarity Project.”
—Andrew Dinkelaker, UE Secretary-Treasurer
“Peter came into the union during the ’80s, when the psychological effect on union organizers of plant shutdowns and concession demands was pretty rough. Not only did he survive that particular decade, but he was an active warrior in that decade. He was willing and skillful organizer, and he never lost faith in the enterprise of good, rank-and-file trade unionism.”
—Ed Bruno, retired UE Director of Organization
“Peter was wonderful to work with, and made an enormous contribution to the UE. He inspired people with his fearlessness about struggle. As a district and later regional president he really played a role in helping people understand the world we live in by exposing them to speakers and topics that you wouldn't necessarily hear on the shop floor.”
—Carol Lambiase, retired UE International Representative
“Peter’s a really great guy and the union's going to be missing a very fine person. When he came to help with the eminent domain fight at Local 284 he was new to the area but he just dove right in, head first. He put his heart and soul into it, as he did with everything. He’s a tireless worker, and I have nothing but good memories of Peter.”
—Carl Olsen, former president, UE Locals 284 and 248
“We could not have had a better partner and leader in the creation of the North American Solidarity Project than Peter Knowlton. Peter immediately saw the need and the potential of a new alliance for change in the labor movement. He understands entirely why Canadians demand a different kind of solidarity with US labor, he has an intimate knowledge of the US labor movement, and its progressive elements that can generate union renewal.”
—Fred Wilson, retired Unifor Director of Strategic Planning