Sixty Years Ago, Virginia Workers Defied Company Pressure to Form UE Local 123

August 30, 2023

Monday marked the 60th anniversary of the NLRB election that brought Local 123, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, into UE. UE Director of Organization Robert Kirkwood called it “one of [UE’s] most significant organizational victories since the Union was split in 1949.”

The 600 workers, who manufactured commercial air conditioning for Westinghouse in Staunton, VA, had been “represented” by an AFL-CIO union picked for them by the company when it opened the plant in the mid-50s, moving the work from plants in New Jersey and Massachusetts in hopes that southern workers would be more docile. Workers got in touch with UE after the company union “had made another of their sweetheart contract deals,” the UE NEWS reported. This resulted in a three-year campaign led by an organizing committee of 110 rank-and-file workers in the plant.

It was a hard-fought campaign. The company tried to buy off workers by raising wages for everyone in the plant, and intimidate them by having foreman take down the names of everyone wearing a UE button. The local Chamber of Commerce “tried to bar UE from use of any meeting halls” and “merchants were urged to threaten a cutoff of credit if people voted for UE,” the UE NEWS reported. “[T]he company started quoting from the UE Constitution’s preamble, hoping to play on prejudices against equal rights for all workers” and fired a key UE leader in the week before the election.

Nonetheless, the UE organizing committee held firm, visiting every one of their co-workers in their homes to talk to them about the union and answer company lies. On August 28, 1963, the workers voted 326-191 to join UE.

Cover of an old pamphet with a large UE logo and the words Time to Come Back!
UE “Time to Come Back!” pamphlet, 1966.

The victory was part of a string of organizing victories for UE in the 1960s, as workers in many plants who had left the union during the raids of the late 40s and early 50s came back to UE, having realized that the more conservative unions they had joined were unable (or unwilling) to engage in aggressive struggle to maintain the standards UE had won in the 1930s and 40s. In this period, UE also successfully organized many shops — like the Staunton Westinghouse plant — where workers had no previous experience with UE, but wanted a militant union that would fight for their interests.

Among the shops joining UE in this period were a General Electric plant in nearby Waynesboro, Virginia; Kennedy Valve in Elmira, New York, where UE Local 329 has represented workers since 1966; and UE’s first public-sector members in the city of Greenfield, MA, who joined Local 274.

The Staunton plant was sold when the Westinghouse Electric Company decided in the 1980s that it would be more profitable to get out of the manufacturing business. The plant is now located in nearby Verona, and is currently owned by Daikin Industries, a Japanese multinational conglomerate, but UE Local 123 continues to proudly represent workers there to this day.

The original UE NEWS coverage of the organizing campaign can be read on the University of Pittsburgh’s digital archives of the UE NEWS.


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