#5: Refresco Workers Win Second NLRB Victory, Begin Bargaining for First Contract
The approximate 240 workers at the Refresco bottling plant in Wharton, NJ began organizing in February 2020 after years of abusive treatment by supervisors, low wages, paltry benefits, sexual harassment, an unforgiving attendance system that penalizes workers for getting sick, and constant schedule changes. Management’s blatant disregard for workers’ safety as the COVID-19 pandemic spread in March of that year only increased their determination to organize a union for fair treatment.
Refresco workers prevailed in a National Labor Relations Board election in June of 2021 — but the company refused to bargain with new UE Local 115, instead filing a seemingly endless series of frivolous legal objections to the election. A regional NLRB agent dismissed the company’s objections and certified UE as the bargaining agent in the fall of 2021, but, shockingly, the full board overturned that decision in the spring and ordered a new election.
The company once again put on a full-court press of union-busting, filling the plant with anti-union propaganda and spreading lies about UE. UE leaders in the plant — including some who has opposed the union in the first vote but decided to support the union after seeing through the company’s propaganda and broken promises — responded to company lies with factual information in leaflets, texts, and conversations with their co-workers.
Refresco gained national attention in the spring for its poor health and safety record — a major issue prompting workers in the plant to organize — when the company was named as one of the 2022 “Dirty Dozen,” a list compiled annually by the National Committee on Occupational Safety and Health to highlight threats to workers’ safety.
In the end, UE won the second NLRB election in May by a wider margin than the original. Following the convincing union win, Refresco began bargaining with Local 115, who have been making progress at the bargaining table and hope to settle their first UE contract early next year.
#4: New UE Investments in Developing New Rank-and-File Leadership, Shop-Floor Organization
Over the past year, UE invested in two significant programs to build the rank-and-file leadership our union — and our labor movement — needs for the future.
The first round of the UE Leadership and Staff Development Program, which began in 2021, concluded this fall. This program was initiated to develop the leadership of rank-and-file members from racial and ethnic backgrounds which are currently underrepresented in UE leadership or on the UE staff. Local 1008 Vice President Fred Hatef, a participant in the program, wrote in the UE NEWS that “It was very encouraging and inspiring to be a part of this program and to learn about activism and union organizing from so many experienced and talented organizers from diverse backgrounds. … Learning about UE’s history of fighting for workers of all racial backgrounds and our bottom-up democratic structure, and working with the other participants from diverse backgrounds, left me with all the confidence in the world that UE is a union that takes representation seriously as a principle.”
Several participants in the program have now joined UE’s General Executive Board or field staff (including Hatef, who was elected to the GEB in March), and the union is preparing to launch a second round of the program early next year.
In September, over 60 rank-and-file members participated in a new four-week program, “Building Union Power,” in which members learned how to strengthen their local unions by mobilizing around workplace issues. Members met one evening per week to develop skills like mapping their workplace, having organizing conversations with their co-workers, and planning escalating actions — and to strategize how to put those ideas into practice.
Workshop participants left the program excited and eager to put their new skills to work. Members of Local 222 who work as paraeducators in various school districts across the state of Connecticut held a statewide paraeducator roundtable meeting later in the fall as several of them prepared for bargaining. Local 228 members in Portsmouth, NH put the ideas from the workshop into practice during their contract bargaining, and Local 728 in Williamsburg, KY has been working on “shop mapping,” with two new leaders heading up an effort to set up a call tree, getting members to commit to contacting others that they know or who work in their area.
#3: 4K MIT Graduate Workers Join UE in One of the Largest NLRB Elections of the Year
In one of the largest National Labor Relations Board election wins for any union in recent years, 3800 graduate workers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology voted on April 4 and 5 to join UE by a margin of almost two to one. The victory came after many years of a worker-led campaign that exhibited many core UE principles: rank and file control, uniting all workers, and aggressive struggle to improve conditions.
Speaking to the UE Eastern Region council meeting later in April, MIT-GSU member Thejas Wesley told delegates, “We couldn’t have asked for a better national union to partner with.” Director of Organization Mark Meinster added that MIT-GSU will be “an incredible, militant, democratic UE local.”
Chartered as UE Local 256 (MIT-GSU), the MIT graduate workers kicked off bargaining for a first contract with a massive rally on September 12. UE General President Carl Rosen is assisting the contract bargaining.
#2: UE Locals Leverage Labor Market to Win Record Wage Settlements, Protect Benefits
Across the country and across the economy, UE locals took full advantage of the leverage workers have in the current labor market to win sizable wage gains and important language improvements, while protecting long-standing benefits from company demands for concessions.
Unanimous strike votes won first-year wage increases in the double digits for Local 329 in Elmira, NY and Local 1123 in Bolingbrook, IL. UE’s two largest grocery co-op locals, Local 203 in Burlington, VT and Local 1186 in Madison, WI both secured historic wage increases. Local 119 in Winslow Township, NJ and Local 1018 in Los Angeles joined Local 1186 in negotiating solid second UE contracts which both delivered pay increases and solidified the union.
Across-the-board wage increases in the first year of UE’s new national contract with Hallcon range from six percent to as high as 13 percent, with drivers in California seeing a $2.10/hour increase to their base wage. Six UE locals represent over 2,000 rail crew drivers at Hallcon.
Several long-established UE locals also negotiated contracts this year which preserved important benefits won over decades. Local 243 in New Haven, CT maintained 100-percent company-paid health insurance, while Local 610 in Wilmerding and Greensburg, PA fought off a host of company demands for concessions. Both locals have been part of UE since the 1930s.
Even UE members who do not have collective bargaining rights were able to win impressive wage increases. Municipal workers in Virginia Beach who are organizing with UE won a new budget that will raise the minimum wage for city workers from $10.87 to $15 per hour and raise wages for every city employee by at least five percent. Meanwhile the Charlotte City Workers Union chapter of UE Local 150 in Charlotte, NC won a ten percent wage increase and a new city minimum wage of $20 per hour.
#1: First Contract Settlements in New Mexico, Western PA Cover 2,500 Workers
The year ended with the conclusion of three major first-contract fights, covering approximately 2,500 workers.
Graduate workers at the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University will see raises of 7.12 and 6.8 percent respectively, thanks to first UE contracts ratified by the members of UE Locals 1466-United Graduate Workers (UNM) and 1498-Graduate Workers United (NMSU) on Friday, December 16.
Both contracts were won following months of escalating pressure, including a December 1 picket by Local 1498 and a December 7 walk-out rally attended by over 200 members of Local 1466. The contract at UNM covers approximately 1,600 workers; the NMSU bargaining unit is around 900.
Earlier that week, on Monday, December 12, the members of UE Local 696 at Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania ratified their first UE contract. The three-year agreement will raise wages by an average of over $2 per hour in the first year, and guarantees a path to a $20/hour minimum base wage for workers with at least three years of service. The contract came after 20 months of struggle, including a July, 2022 rally in which over 150 people came out to support the 30 members of Local 696.
The next issue of the UE NEWS will include full coverage of all three first contract struggles. Subscribe at ueunion.org/subscribe!