UE’s First 75 Years in Vermont

July 9, 2019

July 2019 marks the 75th anniversary of UE's first contract in Vermont, with the Jones and Lamson Machine Company in Springfield. Chartered in October 1943 to organize Springfield's machine tool industry, Local 218 won its first NLRB elections, at Vermont Foundries and Jones and Lamson, early in 1944, concluding first contracts with both companies in July.

The next year, workers at Vermont's oldest industrial plant, Fairbanks-Morse (now known as Fairbanks Scales) in St. Johnsbury voted to form UE Local 234 in March. They settled a first contract by December, which the UE NEWS reported included “wages increases up to 15 cents an hour retroactive for two months, a production bonus, a five-cent second shift differential, good seniority and grievance procedure and a vacation plan calling for one and two weeks at average hours worked. Previously, the plant which has been in operation for 128 years, never gave any paid vacations.”

UE organization continued in the state over the next several decades. Workers at Bijur Lubrication in Bennington, sister shop of a UE shop in New York, formed Local 295 in October 1946, and helped to organize several other shops in the southwestern part of the state. Full organization of Vermont's machine tool industry was finally achieved in the 1960s, with workers at Bryant Grinder and Fellows Gear Shaper in Springfield joining Local 218, and workers at Cone Automatic (later Cone Blachard) in Windsor forming Local 258.

Vermont locals played an important part in keeping UE alive during the redbaiting attacks on UE by other unions in the 1950s: not a single Vermont shop was lost during those years. In no small part, this was attributable to the leadership of Local 218 Business Agent Jim Kane, who went on to serve as President of UE District 2 (New England) and General President of UE from 1981-87.

UE's Vermont locals also played a crucial role in the 1990 election of a then-obscure politician named Bernie Sanders to Congress. The UE NEWS reported that “The Vermont congressional race was a political earthquake of national significance, shaking the establishment along a fault line of voter resentment with a Congress that ignores working class concerns.” Sanders himself told the UE NEWS that “the UE rank-and-file people played a tremendous role” in his victory.

In the 1990s, UE pioneered the use of “workers’ rights boards” as a way to bring organization to workplaces outside of the cumbersome NLRB process. Through the workers' rights board, community leaders would bring pressure on employers to recognize workers' right to organize through processes like card-check, or holding elections overseen by community leaders. Workers at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (Local 221), the Flynn Regional Box Office (Local 203), City Market (Local 203) and Hunger Mountain Coop (Local 255) all joined UE through card-check or community elections.

In the last several decades, Vermont has also become one of the most sectorally diverse parts of the union. Nonprofit workers at Vermont Achievement Center (Local 225) and Northeast Kingdom Community Action (Local 221) and service and maintenance workers at the University of Vermont (Local 267) organized into UE in the 1990s. In 2008, federal contract workers in St. Albans formed UE Local 208 and helped lead the way for federal contract workers across the country in joining UE. Although most of the manufacturing shops represented by UE have closed, Local 234 will celebrate its 75th anniversary next year, and thanks to new organizing UE remains one of the largest and most active unions in the state.

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