Veteran Organizer, Leader Hugh Harley Dies

February 25, 2003

A statement issued by the UE General Officers follows.

Hugh Harley, a veteran organizer and retired UE national officer whose connection with the union spanned more than six decades, died Friday, Feb. 14 in his home in Florida. Harley was particularly known for his major role in organizing the machine-tool, cutting-tool and hand-tool industries in western Massachusetts and Vermont and negotiating agreements with those employers.

Following graduation from Dartmouth College, Harley worked for two years on the staff of the International Labor Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. He joined the UE staff in May 1940.


His first assignments took him to New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He worked on early pioneering organizing campaigns in western Pennsylvania, involving notably the Union Switch and Signal Co. in Swissvale, ITE in South Greensburg, Carborundum in Latrobe, and the Westinghouse porcelain plant in Derry. Harley assisted Local 601 at the Westinghouse East Pittsburgh plant, and he helped service and consolidate UE Local 506 at the Erie General Electric plant and organize several small plants in the Erie area.

Transferred to New England, Harley assisted in organizing GE salaried workers Bridgeport, Conn., and Jones and Lamson Machine and Vermont Foundries workers in Springfield, Vt. He also assisted the UE locals at Bridgeport’s GE and Westinghouse plants.

The 1946 strikes, when the "big three" of the CIO – UE, the United Auto Workers and United Steelworkers – shut down much of basic manufacturing, found Harley in New York state, assisting UE members in GE, Westinghouse and General Motors. He later worked in the Baltimore area.

In 1949 and the early 1950s, when UE came under ferocious attack by the government, news media and other unions-and another union was created by the CIO to take UE’s place, Harley fought for UE’s survival in East Pittsburgh, Springfield, Mass., and Schenectady, N.Y.


Harley returned to the Connecticut River Valley to fulfill the goal of the region’s tool industries. Over the course of three decades, his patience, persistence and proven leadership abilities helped bring major employers in the machine-tool, cutting and hand-tools industries under union contract.

In Vermont, Harley had a major role in organizing major plants in "Precision Valley" such as Jones & Lamson, Fellows Gear Shaper and Bryant Chucking Grinder. In Massachusetts, Harley’s efforts included successful organizing campaigns at Greenfield Tap & Die, Millers Falls Tool and Union Twist Drill, among other manufacturing plants.

Harley was principally responsible for establishing the Conference of Cutting Tool Unions, which brought together UE locals and other unions in that industry for sharing of information on bargaining and industry trends.

He brought his considerable experience to the goal of organizing the southern factories of major UE employers. The 1969 GE strike found him working with Local 124 in Waynesboro, Va. He was also involved in organizing campaigns in North Carolina and Florida.


After more than 30 years’ experience as a UE field organizer and international representative, Harley was elected Director of Organization, one of the three top offices in the union, in 1971.

Over the next 13 years Harley directed new organizing in the South, leading to the organization of General Electric and Westinghouse plants, and oversaw the union’s successful campaigns involving the Litton Corp. and Stewart-Warner. In 1981-2, he helped negotiate a successful conclusion to the 205-day strike of Local 610 members at the American Standard-owned Westinghouse Air Brake and Union Switch and Signal.

Harley chose not to seek re-election as Director of Organization at the 1984 convention. At that convention, then-General President James M. Kane, a machine-tool worker from Springfield, Vt., said of Harley that "he lived for the union and he has lived because of it."

As an organizer and negotiator, Harley had a reputation for long hours, hard work and resourcefulness. Stories of his sleeping in his Volkswagen Beetle or office achieved legendary status among co-workers. He maintained a standard of indefatigability through his retirement, regularly attending the union’s annual national conventions despite frailty and declining health.


For most of his eighty-six years, Hugh Harley´;s overriding concern was the union he served with tireless energy and exemplary determination.

As a rambunctious 23-year-old, Harley joined the staff of a four-year-old union enjoying a dizzying climb to become one of the nation´;s largest and most powerful industrial unions. He fought ferociously to defend UE in the dark days of Cold-War assault on rank-and-file unionism. As an experienced and resourceful organizer, he brought leadership to successful campaigns to rebuild the union, especially in the machine tool industry. As the delegates to the 49th UE Convention declared: "While every area of the Union has benefited from his leadership, none better describes Brother Harley´;s achievements than the role he played in the organization of the workers in the machine tool industry of Massachusetts and Vermont."

As Director of Organization for 13 years, Harley made significant contributions in numerous ways, including the drive to organize and bring the powerful Litton Corp. to the bargaining table, the fight to protect the living standards and jobs of union members in western Pennsylvania, and his insistence on developing rank-and-file members for union leadership.

One of his best-told stories of struggle was his recounting of how rank-and-file leaders and members ignored Labor Board directives as they used every means necessary to force a settlement from the Pennsylvania-based Westinghouse Air Brake Company in an historic strike against concessions. He told the story as a lesson, emphasizing that rank-and-file involvement and member militancy, not crafty bargaining, were the source of power and success in that strike, the first significant and successful strike by any union challenging the concession wave which was sweeping the U.S. in the early 1980s.

As International Representative and Director of Organization, Harley readily placed heavy demands on staff, but he pushed no one on the UE payroll harder than himself. Among rank-and-file leaders and staff alike, Harley´;s extraordinary drive became a matter of legend. During the long battle against the notorious "Litton Lawbreaker," Harley traveled to South Dakota, home to the 2,500 workers at the center of that struggle. Intent on leading by example, he eschewed a $17 per night hotel room for a cot in the busy union office. "These workers should see that this union is careful with the members´; money," Harley told staff at the time.

His devotion and passionate concern for the union´;s well-being did not end with his retirement in 1984. He regularly attended District Two Council meetings and national conventions, despite failing health and increased frailty. During the early years of his retirement, he volunteered on the organizing front, joining union staff in making home visits to develop new campaigns. He was still offering counsel to UE´;s national officers as a new century dawned.

In his final remarks to a UE convention as a national officer, Harley said that leaders in UE have put the interests of the members ahead of their own personal ambitions. Hugh Harley was no exception to that proud record. His remarkable skills and creativity were dedicated to the union´;s membership. As a long-time friend, then-General President James Kane said at that 1984 convention, "he lived for the union and he has lived because of it."

The existence of UE and the welfare of its members owe much to Hugh J. Harley.


General President


General Secretary-Treasurer


Director of Organization


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